Joel Arquillos
5 min readOct 15, 2020

During the Virtual School Year, Community is More Important Than Ever

“Everyone says we don’t notice problems, but we’re the ones that handle them”

— from “Weeping Earth” by 826LA student Crystal G.

By now, you’ve probably heard about the inequities of the virtual school year. LAUSD reported that Black and Latinx students, along with the 85% of students whose families qualify as low-income, participate in distance learning at a 10–20% lower rate than their white and middle-income peers. The report concluded that, as part of a multi-faceted solution, it is critical to “reach and engage all students, since students in different groups have different contexts for their non-participation.”

826LA’s summer camp workshop on Zoom.

Maybe you haven’t read that report, because you’re too busy helping your first grader do her homework on a school-issued iPad while running a Zoom meeting with your work team and extracting LEGOs from your toddler’s mouth. But for every difficult distance-learning situation, there’s a more harrowing one: Consider the first grader who has no homework help because she spends her days with a teenage sibling while their parents work outside the home. Consider this: In the City of Los Angeles, the number of homeless individuals rose 16% between 2018 and 2019, according to the Times’ reporting on the annual homeless count. Now, unhoused students can’t count on a safe, four-walled place to learn between 8 am and 3 pm, the way they once could.

The problems we continue to face are immense and heartbreaking. To deny the failures of our leaders to meet these challenges would be irresponsible. The positive efforts that have bloomed alongside the 214,000 deaths and 13% unemployment rate in California (source: Employment Development Department) do not make up for the failures. But these efforts are worth noting — not simply because we all need an injection of good news, but because America at large is learning what poor communities and communities of color have always known: When systems fail, people help each other.

This is a lesson I’ve learned repeatedly as the Executive Director of 826LA, a 15-year-old nonprofit organization that provides free writing and tutoring programs for students from Title I schools.

In the spring, shortly before schools closed, 826LA worked with students at Manual Arts High School in South LA — where we maintain a classroom-sized version of our centers dedicated entirely to writing — to help them develop essays about food justice in their neighborhoods.

A student named Skilar wrote a piece called “My Peach Tree”: “My neighbors love peaches from my tree. They tell everybody about them. If my peach tree wasn’t there, most of my neighbors wouldn’t have any good fruit. They don’t have to spend money and go to the store. They can just get fruit from the tree. The peach tree is stable. The peach tree brings happiness to the community. The peach tree is respect.”

The zine that students compiled, aptly titled As Long as Hope Grows, was the product of a long collaboration between the 826LA Writers’ Room at Manual Arts High School, a student environmental group called Chicas Verdes, and chemistry teacher Bari Applebaum. Together they maintained the school garden and distributed its bounty during lunch. After schools closed, Chicas Verdes partnered with the American Heart Association LA and Caulipower, another local nonprofit, to safely distribute hundreds of produce boxes weekly.

When we began thinking about how 826LA could help our communities during quarantine, we tried to channel the resilience and creativity we see in students, families, and educators. We aimed to respond directly to the needs expressed by the 200+ families we called at the beginning of the pandemic. For the past seven months, we’ve offered free online tutoring for 6- to 18-year-olds, writing workshops, and journalism classes. We have distributed writing supplies to hundreds of students. These are just some of the ways we’re working to close the opportunity gap for the students we support. As we all know, a college education is still a young person’s best hope of breaking out of poverty, so we’re helping high school seniors draft and polish their personal statement essays for college.

We are also seizing the opportunities created by the virtual sphere. We recently launched a Virtual Field Trips program that will allow schools who could never afford a bus to our centers to partake in our fun and innovative creative writing field trips. Similarly, we’ve loaded workshop webinars onto YouTube, where learners of all ages, from all around the world, can discover how to make a zine, craft a poem, or investigate a time capsule. And we created a searchable, sortable database of writing prompts for teachers who want to make writing exciting.

We encourage students to adopt a growth mindset, and as an organization, we have to do the same. Later this month, we’ll be convening a Virtual Town Hall that includes Rocío López of Common Sense Latino, Ryan Smith of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, and Dr. Erica Thomas-Minor of Manual Arts High School. We’re excited to learn from these experts, and to keep conversations like this happening. Two months into the school year, we have found a rhythm, but we haven’t found all the answers.

I’m proud of the work my organization does, but I don’t want to overplay it. Instead, I describe 826LA as part of an ecosystem of support for Los Angeles students. It’s on us — an “us” that includes families, schools, nonprofits, volunteers, donors, and maybe you — to counterbalance and eventually dismantle the systemic oppression that COVID-19 has revealed and exacerbated. This is no small task, especially when most of us are stretched thinner than ever. But we know we’re not alone.

Joel Arquillos

Joel Arquillos is an executive director, educator, and consultant for education and arts nonprofits and school systems.