Photography courtesy of Chris Prestridge

Each morning, Lakewood Elementary students find their seats, pull out their laptops and get to work. But their classroom is not in a school building. Instead, they’re at a makeshift schoolhouse in the Filter Building on White Rock Lake.

Lakewood Elementary was the only school in Dallas ISD that did not have enough space for all the students who wanted to return to campus. Principal Brittany Thompson announced survey results showing that 82 percent of families wanted to return to in-person learning. The district only allows schools to operate at 60 percent capacity, so Lakewood was forced to create a hybrid plan.

Some parents found a solution in the FOL Sports Academy learning pod. The pod has about 30 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. They are split into morning and afternoon sessions. Students who come in the morning receive help from learning coaches on their self-guide assignments in science, socials studies and specials. They get picked up at lunchtime and taken to Lakewood Elementary for in-person, core-class instruction. Students who attended Lakewood Elementary in the morning are then brought to the Filter Building for the afternoon session.

Their tutor is Lakewood neighbor Chris Prestridge, co-founder of the youth fitness program FOL Sports. When Dallas shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, the group had to cancel its after-school activities. Prestridge hoped that summer camps could resume, but the church that hosted participants in its gym decided not to reopen.

“I looked around for another space and thought, ‘Hey, the Filter Building.’ No one uses it during the day,” Prestridge said.

Prestridge had helped transform the basement of the Filter Building into a haunted house fundraiser for White Rock Rowing last year, and he wondered if the building could again become a space for community use as a summer camp location. He contacted District 9 Park and Recreation Board representative Maria Hasbany, who helped get approval from the City of Dallas. Prestridge hired an outside company to create a COVID-19 mitigation plan and organized summer camps that kept kids safe and healthy.

“It was a good summer, but parents saw fall coming with no answers in sight,” Prestridge said. “One parent looked into a pod and kept on pecking at me, so we converted the Filter Building into a school building.”

Prestridge invited a core group of parents who had utilized FOL Sports in the past. Students started FOL Sports Academy on Sept. 8 with virtual learning. When the 30 students logged on to their Zoom calls, the internet crashed.

“We’re sweating bullets because we’ve never done this before, and then we crater the internet,” Prestridge said. “It took us a few days to figure out the technology. It was really hard with Zoom calls all day long. It looked like a boardroom at a corporation. Now we’re into the second week of the hybrid model.”

The learning coaches are Prestridge, his partner and two 2019 Woodrow Wilson High School graduates. They walk around to each table, walking students through the assignment and making sure they have their materials.

“We’re not there to be teachers. We’re there to keep them on track, keep them focused and keep them on schedule,” Prestridge said. “A lot of them are the same kids who come to camps. Now we’re telling them to stay in their seats. It’s more work. They had a long break, and they’re very rusty at learning. First- and second-graders are still pretty green at this stuff. But we’re in the trenches trying to remember fifth-grade math.”

Students are spread out among tables and chairs used for events. When there’s a wedding or private function, sometimes class ends early. Prestridge packs up the school supplies and stores them in the basement, which is still a haunted house. On Monday morning, he reconfigures the tables and chairs, and the building is back in school mode.

Students and staff get their temperature checked upon entering the building, and everyone must wear masks while inside. Everything is sanitized between sessions.

“As high a bar as Lakewood parents set, they are understanding of what we’re trying to do,” Prestridge says.

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