Heinz Fellow Helps Students Cross Virtual Finish Line in the Pandemic

Erica Roberts, a Heinz Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s Center for Urban Education, is an avid runner who leads a healthy lifestyle. She recently found a way to share this interest and support the social and emotional growth of her third-grade female students at Weil Elementary in Pittsburgh’s Hill District neighborhood.

The Girls on the Run (GOTR) Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC program is a 10-week after-school program designed to inspire girls in grades three through five to recognize and embrace their inner strength. It culminates with a 5K run of three miles at the conclusion of the program. The program’s mission states, “We inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun and experienced-based curriculum which creatively integrates running.”

“Through GOTR, I was able to share my interests with the students,” says Roberts. “Many of them had similar interests, which allowed me to continue to build strong relationships. The more you know about a student, the more you can build better learning environments and offer support.”

At the beginning of March, the Weil Elementary students received a full scholarship from GOTR allowing them to be able to participate in the program, along with a free pair of running shoes, a t-shirt, and water bottle. McAuley Ministries also provided a grant for the girls’ after-school transportation.

“The girls loved the program and looked forward to staying after school for the sessions,” says Roberts. “They would see me at lunch or in the hallway and say, ‘Ms. Roberts, I can’t wait for practice today!’”

Prior to becoming a Heinz Fellow, Roberts worked in public, private, and charter sections of education for 10 years. Motivated to change the statistics in the unprecedented health crisis facing Black women, Roberts wants to help young Black girls establish a solid foundation of healthy eating and lifestyle habits to potentially modify their behaviors in adulthood and improve their health and quality of life.

Her goals for the program extended far beyond the 5K run at the end.Throughout the 10 weeks, she aimed to teach the girls the important connection between physical and emotional health, healthy eating habits, and life skills and strategies that they can apply to all aspects of their lives. Along with her assistant coaches, Maya Cheriyan (an associate attorney at Eckert Seamans), Noranne Yarbough (a second-grade teacher at Weil), and Shaquille Jackson (a personal care assistant at Weil), she served as a caring and supportive mentor outside of the classroom.

“We created safe places where students could explore new interest areas and build confidence in themselves,” says Roberts. “Social and emotional support has a direct and positive effect on students’ success both inside and outside of the classroom.”

Roberts and her students were well on their way to achieving all their goals when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, only three weeks into their training. Physical distancing requirements led to the cancellation of the 5K run.

The students had progressed so far that Roberts could not let the cancellation ruin the girls’ sense of accomplishment. She worked with GOTR to develop a virtual 5K run that gave her students one week to complete the 3.1 miles via walking, running, or skipping at home.

“It meant so much to me because I know how hard they were working towards their goal,” says Roberts. “Ten girls completed the virtual 5K and a few of the girls sent pictures of them completing their run. This is just one of many examples of how people can make the best out of an unfortunate circumstance like the pandemic.”

Roberts will be returning for her second year of the Heinz Fellowship as a Lead Fellow in the 2020-2021 cohort. She is grateful and looking forward to having the opportunity to find unique resources that will help to support students in urban education.

“Programs like this are important because they offer children opportunities and experiences that they may not receive anywhere else,” explained Roberts. “When organizations invest in our schools, our students feel valued. All students want to grow up feeling as though they matter.”

Learn more

Heinz Fellows Program

The Center for Urban Education

Girls on the Run (GOTR) Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC program