The immediate rapport between aide Ryan Culmer and student Brody Slotnick helped close the gap between online and in-person learning — and enabled the fourth grader’s all-virtual year at Albert M. Greenfield School in Center City to conclude on an upbeat note.
“Ryan is one of the unsung heroes of the pandemic,” said Jami Slotnick, Brody’s mother, who’s not one for understatement.
Despite efforts by his teachers and other aides during months of sitting in front of a Zoom screen, Brody — who struggles to hear, speak, and focus his attention due to a constellation of genetic and neurological issues — found it increasingly tough to learn.
“Then in May, Ryan came along,” Slotnick said. In the four or five weeks before the city school year ended in mid-June, she added, “Brody got his mojo back.”
COVID-19′s disruptions have challenged students everywhere to continue their education without the structure, community, and conventions of bricks-and-mortar classrooms. As The Inquirer reported in April, teachers in urban, suburban, and small-town school districts across the region worry about what’s being called “learning loss.”
Online classes have been particularly complicated for special-needs students — rendering the role of one-on-one aides even more essential.
“Virtual learning is a whole other world, and the rigorous schedule is a major challenge,” Culmer said. “It can be very frustrating for the child and the support staff.”
An aide at Greenfield for six years, Culmer has known Brody since the boy was in kindergarten but had never been his one-to-one.
Nonetheless, Brody’s Zoom fatigue proved no match for Culmer’s warm, expressive, demonstrative way of commanding attention; it got the boy energized and engaged with his studies again, even through the small screen.
“The key is to be very patient,” said Culmer, who’s 29 and an elementary education major at Drexel University.
“He’s so nice,” Brody told a reporter. “I love him.”
Culmer has worked in day care and child development centers since he was a South Philly teenager; he’s also the father of a 10-year-old son, Rylie, and a daughter, Journey, who’s 3. He and their mother, Jalisa Mitchell, a medical assistant, live with the kids in West Philly.
“I had a lot of passion for working with children even before I had my own children,” Culmer said. “You need to have a positive, strong, trustworthy relationship with your student and their parents. It’s the only way you’re going to help that child reach their academic goals.”
Dan Lazar, the principal at Greenfield — a K-8 public school with 660 students, 9% of whom have special needs — said Culmer “has a love of children, which is first and foremost. He’s very caring.”
Greenfield has 14 one-to-one aides, and often “their work doesn’t get recognized,” Lazar said. “My one-to-ones go above and beyond on a daily basis. They bring so much to a student’s day.”
A friendly little fellow with braces on his teeth, Brody has a rare genetic disorder called Branchialoto Renal Syndrome, which causes hearing loss and other complications. He also has been diagnosed with Speech Apraxia and ADHD.
Brody likes math, art, and Formula 1 race cars and has been embraced by the Greenfield school community. “Brody has never been bullied,” his mother said. “All his friends lift him up.”
A communications professional, Jami Slotnick, 52, stayed home with Brody after the pandemic hit. She and her husband, Michael, and their son live a few blocks north of the school.
“Brody’s learning suffered,” she said. “He got easily distracted and just wanted to play games on the iPhone or watch YouTube. He would say things like ‘I’m done’ when he really wasn’t and sometimes he would just say ‘I’m too tired.’”
His mother also noted that as class work, including math, became more demanding, Brody seemed to lose confidence.
“One of the main obstacles for Brody is keeping up with his peers,” Culmer said. “You can definitely see times when he becomes a bit intimidated and shuts down because he can realize to a certain extent that he is different.”
In addition to his work at Greenfield, his Drexel classes, and his dad duties, Culmer works part time at Early Childhood Environments (ECE Childcare) at Broad and Fitzwater, where CEO and director Beth Perretta has long been one of his mentors.
“I have never seen a teacher with more patience and more caring,” she said. “Ryan never misses a day, and he works really well with children who have different challenges, behavioral or developmental. He puts so much thought, and also his education and experience, into everything he does. You don’t see that very often.”
Culmer said he also draws motivation from his own childhood in South Philly, where he grew up one of many siblings in what he calls a “definitely low-income” household headed by a single mother. “I guess my calling comes from my upbringing,” he said.
He’s researching what it would take to set up a nonprofit to address the need for more father figures or male mentors for boys and young men in some neighborhoods. The “ultimate goal ... is to do my own child care center, with pre-K and Headstart,” Culmer said.
At 11, Brody’s future is less clear, even with the new partnership he has with his one-on-one.
“The [coming] challenges are adolescence, and when hormones kick in,” Jami Slotnick said.
“Will Brody be college material or not? Will he be able to be independent and able to work? We don’t know yet. So we take it day by day.”