Published: May 19, 2021

On one afternoon a week, Room 177 in the School of Education is buzzing with activity. At one end of the large and airy space on a recent Monday, a handful of parents engage in deep conversation, in both English and Spanish, with recent doctoral graduate Ángeles Osorio Cooper. Opposite the parents, a group of middle and high schoolers review new math concepts and complete English homework with the help of teacher education and graduate students. Friendly banter across the Generation Z and millennial divide erupts during a short study break.

Sandwiched between the parents and teens, elementary education teaching candidate Penny Sanches expertly engages a group of squirrely and energetic youth as they sit in a circle reading and discussing Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o.

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“It’s like watching magic happen,” said Wagma Mommandi, doctoral candidate in education.

Launched in October 2020, Buffs for Front Line Service Employees (Buffs4FLSE) grew out of the need to provide immediate educational support to families disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Led by Mommandi and Osorio Cooper, this unique and affirming program is designed to support the school-aged children of the university’s essential employees at no cost to families. In addition to weekly in-person support and enrichment sessions, Buffs4FLSE offers virtual academic support across subject areas and grade levels.

An idea into action

When it became clear many schools would begin the 2020-21 school year in the same way they ended the previous academic year — in remote or hybrid learning settings — news spread of some parents’ plans to pool their resources to hire private teachers and create “learning pods” for their children, a troubling trend for many in the field of education. 

“I will not criticize what parents do individually, but it became clear that this was becoming a situation where the collective action of privileged parents was exacerbating long standing equity gaps,” said Mommandi. “It just felt crummy.”

Mommandi took her frustrations to Twitter, where she synced up with School of Education Dean Kathy Schultz and Assistant Professor Melissa Braaten, who were also concerned about deepening inequities as wealthy families formed learning pods. They agreed on figuring out a way to immediately begin supporting the children of the university’s front line service employees, essential workers who have been hard at work keeping campus safe and clean, preparing and serving nourishing foods, and attending to the beautiful campus grounds that often help earn the university accolades as one of most beautiful campuses in the nation. Many of the university’s essential workers are parents or grandparents of children navigating remote learning without private teachers or pods.

Start-up funds, including financial support from the chancellor’s office and individual donations led by education alumna Chris Willis, helped make the program a reality and allowed Mommandi and Osorio Cooper to get to work. Both credit Dean Schultz for turning the idea into a reality.

“Kathy is an incredible leader who gets things done,” Mommandi said. “She didn’t just give us the greenlight, she helped make things happen. She got word out in a way we wouldn’t be able to do and connected with people who could move resources around. Kathy never said ‘no’ or ‘that's not possible.’ Instead she said ‘let me figure out how to make that happen.’”

The heartbeat of the university

The Buffs4FLSE program has a twofold mission: to address the inequities in education that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and to focus on an assets-based view of children and their families by celebrating and centering the incredible cultural and linguistic diversity of the campus community. buffs for frontline service employee

My first initial reaction was: ‘wow,’ and to be honest, it was one of those: ‘wow, it’s about time." We have all these departments — including the School of Education, language support, the business school — that can benefit every individual on campus who has a desire to better themselves.” — Craig Cook, Human Resources program manager

Dean Schultz, Mommandi and Osorio Cooper teamed up with Craig Cook, Human Resources program manager for the front line service employees, to gauge interest and spread the word about the program to the diverse campus community of 556 front line service employees.

“My first initial reaction was: ‘wow,’ and to be honest, it was one of those: ‘wow, it’s about time,’” said Cook. “We have all these departments — including the School of Education, language support, the business school — that can benefit every individual on campus who has a desire to better themselves.”

For 16 years, Cook has progressively advanced at CU Boulder, including time as a cook and chef and training abroad before becoming manager for service employees at the end of March 2020, just as the pandemic closed parts of campus. Cook spent time getting to know employees and their laudable dedication to their work when front line service employees were placed on furlough in summer 2020. Throughout his career, Cook has focused on professional development for colleagues, and this role allows him to continue that advocacy.

“I have come to realize there are a lot of things that we need to do for ourselves, and we also need a little bit of mentorship or positiveness behind us,” said Cook, who views Buffs4FLSE as way to show appreciation for front line employees who have readily taken on additional responsibilities during the pandemic."

“Front line service employees are the heartbeat of the university. Without them, the university doesn't exist.”

A family affair

After working with CU Boulder Human Resources to identify participants, interest continues to grow. Parents have encouraged colleagues to participate, and families come back week after week.

“My daughter gets excited every Monday, because she gets to go to what she calls ‘CU class,’” said Nersy Carnes, a parent and CU Boulder dining employee. “I am so grateful for this program, and I hope it can continue.”

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Parents shared ample gratitude for the support. Laura López, who has five kids, ages 8-17, participating in the program, has explored tutoring to support her children during the shift to remote schooling but found private services to be cost prohibitive. She cares deeply about her children’s education but cannot support them during her shifts on the CU Boulder maintenance team.

“School right now is definitely a challenge,” López said. “This has been great, because we didn’t go to school to be [science] teachers. It provides someplace where they have academic support. If they have a question about science, then they have someone to talk to.”

Parents have been able to integrate Buffs4FLSE into their campus work schedule, and it’s been an opportunity for the children to see where their parents work in higher education.

“They feel a part of the CU Boulder community now,” López said.

An asset-based view of community

As a rule, Buffs4FLSE fosters a welcoming, nurturing, and fun environment where CU Boulder employees and their families feel seen and valued, explained Osorio Cooper, who grew up in Mexico and has a background in bilingual education and family engagement.

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As part of my research, I work with Latinx families mainly in impoverished communities, and when they go to their neighborhood schools, they are not valued or supported. Using Buffs4FLSE as an opportunity to value their knowledge is something that Wagma, Penny and I found important." — Ángeles Osorio Cooper, recent doctoral graduate

“As part of my research, I work with Latinx families mainly in impoverished communities, and when they go to their neighborhood schools, they are not valued or supported,” she said, drawing from her experience partnering with immigrant mothers. "Using Buffs4FLSE as an opportunity to value their knowledge is something that Wagma, Penny and I found important.”

The trio feel deeply connected with and protective of participating parents and children because they see their own families in the faces of many university staff members. 

“Educational spaces were not always welcoming, especially for my parents,” explained Mommandi, who was raised in Denver after her family emigrated from Afghanistan. “My mom does not speak English, so she did not talk to my teachers. For a lot of teachers that meant she wasn’t engaged. What a ridiculous notion—of course she was engaged in my education."

“We know our parents love and care for their children. We know they are or want to be deeply engaged with their progress and learning. We also know they have likely not been valued by the system.”

For Sanches, similar life experiences growing up in Boulder and her bilingualism help her engage with her students.

“I feel connected with them knowing that my parents have worked at these essential jobs, and it’s tough,” she said.

Keeping it up

Even as more schools move to in-person instruction, the pandemic continues to expose inequities in educational access and experiences. For instance, 68% of Asian American, 58% of Black and 52% of emerging bilingual fourth graders were learning remotely compared with only 27% of white students, according to a report released by the U.S. Education Department in March 2021.

“COVID has been hard,” Osorio Cooper said. “Students want to be in person and they want to be in school as they know it, especially little kids. Parents are in a difficult position where they cannot afford to get sick, and some may hesitate to bring their children to in-person schooling.”

Like many recent developments in education, the growing Buffs4FLSE program was born out of the pandemic, but its equity mission and future are not confined to it.

“It’s too bad it took an emergency to create a program like this,” Mommandi said. “On our own campus, we see inequities. There are two worlds: there are the people who attend the university and who work as professors and administrators and so forth, and then there are people who keep the university running.”

To fully support campus staff, this program should not be a short-term stopgap, added Osorio Cooper. “The desire to make this program grow into the future and sustain it shows that leadership is really willing to speak to and change structural inequalities,” she said.

Parents also expressed deep desires to see the “magic” of the Buffs4FLSE program continue. They are seeing their children flourish, and at school, teachers are taking note, too. As López joyfully reported recently, a teacher praised her child’s progress and told her: “Whatever you are doing, keep it up.”

Why I Give

Last summer, alumna Chris Willis connected with Dean Kathy Schulz in search of opportunities to support students who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and educational inequities, and she learned about early plans to form the Education Buffs for Front Line Services Employees program. 

It was clear that this was a great fit for what I wanted to be able to do as a donor... It feels so good to know that our initial gift is likely to make a difference both during the pandemic and in the long term. My personal involvement in education is driven primarily by a desire to make a difference in the lives of the underserved and disenfranchised, along with a commitment to the importance of that goal in pursuit of a healthier and more stable democracy in this country. The possibility of extending the program indefinitely is very satisfying. I’m hopeful that the program will attract other donors in the near future while we try, as a nation, to reorient, reprioritize and retool in the service of social equity and justice." — Chris Willis (PhDEdu ‘02)

Your donation will help sustain and enrich the Buffs4FLSE program.

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