K.E.Y. Zone : When “Afterschool Time” Suddenly Becomes All The Time

Guitar lessons

About 10 years ago, a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant brought the Duluth Area Family YMCA and Duluth Public Schools together in close partnership. That’s when the YMCA’s K.E.Y Zone became the primary provider of before and after school care for elementary students attending Duluth Public Schools.  

And while the 21CCLC grant period came to an end, the strong partnership continued, ultimately leading to K.E.Y Zone programs led by YMCA staff at all nine Duluth Public Schools as well as two Duluth Edison Charter Schools, where the program is known as “Eagle’s Nest.” In fact, the organizations are so tightly linked that “we even share staff,” chuckled Anne Rawlins, Out of School Time Director, Duluth Area Family YMCA.  

COVID-19 meant that K.E.Y. Zone needed to quickly recalibrate as schools closed abruptly. Suddenly they needed to provide dependable full-day child care during what would normally be their “part-time season.” Staff swiftly pivoted, creating a model that’s been tweaked for summer to provide all-day enrichment and child care. 

Centers were consolidated and hours were reduced. Students were grouped into pods and a rotation schedule was created to limit interactions and provide time to sanitize between groups. Field trips shifted to guest speakers (the “Snake Pit guy” and his visiting tarantula was a particular crowd pleaser!) 

Staff set a tone for fun, getting super creative about spinning their unique talents and interests into programs that could be done on-site and at low cost using their own expertise. “Staff took what they’re interested in and really ran with it,” explained Anne.  

That meant K.E.Y. Zone students got to try a whole plethora of new activities this summer. They made chess boards using leather-working tools. Some learned to play guitar, while others crafted Rube Goldberg machines or created art with special painting techniques. “Usually we’re so pressed for time,” noted Anne. “This summer we’ve been able to slow down and try new things. It came down to really good staff doing really good stuff.” 

Now with the school year quickly approaching, the strong partnership is proving once again to be an asset. As the schools are making plans for fall semester and beyond, K.E.Y. Zone is at the table.  “I’m part of Zoom meetings with all the principals,” Anne reflected. “So I hear a lot about the school’s concerns up front, and I’m well listened to as an active presence at the table.”  

Both partners have shared concerns about staffing, space and maintaining safety protocols across all the school and program sites. “We’re all working together on figuring out more creative uses of indoor space,” Anne affirmed. 

As of this writing, K.E.Y. Zone has three different scenarios for how they’ll operate this fall, each based on the various models the schools may use. (A final decision is expected by August 31.) “We’re ready to go once the schools make a decision,” Anne maintained.