There is a 15-by-15-foot white tent in Tim Morita's driveway. To the average passerby, the tent proves to be a spectacle. Some stop and take pictures. Others leave notes or knock on the door, wondering what goes on in there.
But to the nearly dozen kids who come to Morita's driveway every weekday, it's the place where they can get free in-person tutoring. Tent schools like Morita's are growing in popularity, not just in Portland but across the country, to supplement distance learning as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Parents and some private schools have installed tents to use as additional, outdoor classrooms to meet public health guidelines while also giving students a sense of routine.
"Everyone is hoping that things will go back to normal," says Morita. "But in my opinion, this is the new normal, because it's going to be a while before the kids go back to school."
The idea for a tent school came to Morita in early spring as he watched his 13-year-old daughter sit for eight hours a day, working on school assignments, staring at the computer. "Her whole life was her bedroom," he says.
Over the summer months, he obsessed about how he could make it happen. He reached out to other parents in his neighborhood and tapped into his network as a business owner and "professional problem solver." And in September, Morita brought Equal Ground School to life.
Morita, 49, and his business partner Aaron Allison rented a tent and portable toilet; bought desks, chairs, plastic dividers, an air filtration system as well as heaters; hired two tutors; and installed high-speed internet all on their own dime—about $15,000 a month, to be precise. Morita credits "effective altruism"—using one's own capital to better the lives of others—as his determination for this experiment, which he hopes to run until the end of the school year.
The tent extends from Morita's two-car garage all the way to the sidewalk. Desks are spaced 10 feet apart. Students have their temperature taken before they can enter and, of course, masks are required.
But just because they built it didn't mean parents were eager to have their kids come right away.
As it stands now, all of the students live within a 1-mile radius of Morita's home in Alameda and attend either Beaumont Middle School or Grant High School. Morita says he's reached out to local youth organizations and Portland Public Schools in an effort to drum up interest, but so far he's been met with skepticism.
"Some people think this is a closed school for rich kids," says Morita. "There's some signs that say, 'Put this tent in a location that needs it,' and that kind of hurt my feelings. We are putting so many resources into this, and I'm willing to invest in our communities. So if there are parents out there who have kids who want to study, they can definitely come here a couple days a week."
For Tina McCuen, the only skeptics were her two kids, 14 and 16.
"At first I thought it was very theoretical, but I could see the benefit," she says. "My own children, they were resistive. So I pitched it to them as a chance to get back some normalcy."
Since McCuen's kids have started going to Equal Ground, she says they've gotten back on track. When education went virtual, so did communication between students and teachers, meaning kids now manage more emails and online assignments than ever before. The tutors at Equal Ground not only help with assignment material but make sure it gets turned in properly, an organizational perk McCuen didn't know she needed.
"I think a lot of us feel pretty hopeless," says McCuen, "so what's been great for me to know is that I have support, that someone else is helping, and it's not just me."
To schedule a tutoring session, visit equalgroundschool.squarespace.com.