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Pittsburgh nonprofit launches first U.S. mobile classroom to address homeless kids’ learning gaps

A mobile classroom blue van with a photo of a child on the open door, with a table and four stools outside and a sandwich board reading "Welcome to Winnie's Wagon."
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Nonprofit leaders and elected officials celebrated the launch Wednesday night outside the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, which designed the brightly decorated van in which the mobile tutoring program will be housed.

The Homeless Children’s Education Fund (HCEF) has launched what it’s calling the country’s first mobile classroom.

“Winnie’s Wagon” will house the Pittsburgh-based organization’s mobile learning program, which brings free, one-on-one tutoring to K-8 students who have missed long stretches of school due to housing instability.

At least 3,100 school-aged children in Allegheny County experienced homelessness during the 2021-2022 school year.

Kait Nykwest, HCEF’s director of education services, said many of those families reside in crowded spaces doubled-up, or don’t have a table or chairs at which students can study.

When the organization’s mobile learning program first launched in 2021, Nykwest would pack those materials in her own SUV.

“This alleviates the stress of that, and it allows for students and families to have a safe, comfortable place to come and learn,” Nykwest said.

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Nonprofit leaders and elected officials celebrated the launch Wednesday night outside the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, which designed the brightly decorated van in which the program will be housed.

Inside, students will engage with a colorful library of books, games and toys to facilitate hands-on learning. The van is also equipped with WiFi, a 3-D printer and tablets at which students can work.

Students and families will also receive wrap-around services, including mental health services and emergency funds.

Loren Kurpiewski, who manages HCEF’s mobile learning program, said it aims to serve students both during and after periods of homelessness.

Many of the 30 students already signed up for HCEF’s mobile learning program come to the organization several grade levels behind, according to Kurpiewski.

“Just because you found a place to live doesn't mean your problems are solved,” she added. “It doesn't mean your academics magically shoot up to where they're supposed to be.”

Kurpiewski said HCEF works with school districts across Allegheny County to identify students in need and matches them with tutors, many of whom are certified educators.

The organization initially raised $160,000 to purchase and outfit Winnie’s Wagon for mobile learning. HCEF CEO AJ Jefferson said she’s now looking to raise an additional $50,000 to $60,000 to sustain the program over the next few years, and add a mobile lab for STEM enrichment.

Later this month, state Representative Aerion Abney will host Jefferson in Harrisburg to share how other organizations across the Commonwealth can replicate the mobile learning program.

The Democrat commended HCEF for creating a program that steps outside the traditional boundaries.

“We tend to create programs and activities that are convenient for us, that work around our schedules, that are 9 to 5 or they're at a certain building,” he said. “We tell people who want services, you got to come to us during these hours. What Winnie’s Wagon says is we’re going to do things differently.”

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.