A parking lot isn’t exactly a traditional classroom, but not much of anything is traditional during the coronavirus pandemic. 

When schools in Los Angeles County announced they would keep their doors closed this fall, the Dream Center converted a portion of its parking lot into an outdoor learning center, staffed with professional tutors, called the Restart Learning Center. 

“It’s everything I never thought a school would be, in a parking lot with an overhang and stations set up for kids to learn,” Matthew Barnett, co-founder of the nonprofit, told The Daily Signal in a phone interview. 

The Restart Learning Center provides students in K-12 with a safe and engaging environment to watch online lessons from their respective schools and to complete assignments. Dream Center tutors are on site to help students with their work and encourage them to stay engaged in their schooling. 

The Dream Center, a nonprofit founded in 1994 and funded through donations, was founded to serve the poor in and around Los Angeles. With schools closed this fall, academic assistance is one of the most pressing needs of low-income families. 

Barnett, 46, has served as a pastor in downtown Los Angeles for 26 years and is well-acquainted with the challenges faced by families in his community, many of whom are immigrants. 

When the schools announced that they would be all online this fall, “we just began to hear panic in the neighborhoods,” he said. “Parents saying, ‘I have no idea how to do this.’ … There was just a feeling of giving up.” 

From the start of the pandemic, the center has acted to meet the needs of the community. 

More than 85% of students in the Los Angeles Unified School District qualify for either free or discounted school meals, according to KNBC-TV Channel 4, the NBC affiliate in Los Angeles. 

Between March and early June, the Dream Center served up more than 900,000 free meals to students, families, and anyone else in need. 

The Restart Learning Center, which offers tutoring and a safe learning environment for children to complete assignments while parents work, is just one more way the nonprofit is supporting families during the pandemic. 

It provides students with “no reason why they can’t succeed, because we have teachers here. We have [WiFi] here. We will call the school for them” if they have questions about assignments, Barnett said. 

There are no reservations or waiting lists. Parents can simply drop off their children in the morning and pick them up in the afternoon. 

Tutors are available to answer questions. A computer or a Chromebook is provided to children who do not have a device for online learning. 

Every student receives a free lunch, and prizes are awarded hourly to children who stay focused and engaged in their schoolwork. 

“High-energy Nickelodeon TV show-meets-education” is how the nonprofit’s co-founder described the environment of the Restart Learning Center. 

Twenty students and seven tutors arrived Aug. 18 for the first day of learning under the solar panel overhang. Barnett thinks there will be 80 to 100 children attending the Restart Learning Center by mid-to-late September. 

The center would like to maintain a student-to-tutor ratio of between 3-to-1 and 7-to-1 to ensure that every child is receiving the attention he or she needs. 

Beyond just academics, the Dream Center views the learning space as a safe way for kids to reengage with the world around them after being stuck at home for months, and for young people to continue pursuing their dreams. 

On the very first day, Barnett found himself chatting with a high schooler who one day hopes to attend Duke University. 

“He is sitting out here in an outdoor shed in a parking lot of the Dream Center doing his online work with a vision to go to Duke. … I thought, if we could have four months [to be] a part of his journey to get there … how cool would that be to be a part of his life?” Barnett said, adding:

His storyline one day will be, ‘My education was maintained because a group of people in downtown L.A. opened up their parking lot, where we could learn and study.’

Many of the families attending the Restart Learning Center are from the low-income neighborhoods surrounding the Dream Center, but working parents, no matter their socioeconomic background, are trusting the center to help their children succeed this fall. 

“Thank you so much. I did not know what to do,” a doctor and single father told Barnett as he dropped his child off at the outdoor schooling center. 

The nonprofit plans to continue the free tutoring and meals to students and families through the fall semester, and maybe even into the new year, living out its COVID-19 mantra: “Meet the need. Support the comeback.”