It's a rainy Wednesday night, and the Sunday School classrooms at Congregacin Len de Jud are filled with clusters of teens. Surrounded by colorful posters bearing Spanish and English phrases like "Jesus loves me," students clad in jeans and jewelry whisk out their flashcards, ready to learn.
But this is not Bible study. It's a less conventional part of the ministry at this church: helping inner-city youths open the door to college. Through SAT-prep classes and other mentoring activities, students who just weeks before may never have given much thought to campus quads and ivory towers can start to see the gates opening up to let them in.
Congregacin Len de Jud (Lion of Judah), affiliated with the American Baptists, holds its music-filled services in Spanish and is particularly well equipped to reach out in a variety of ways to members of the Latino community. But from its inception last fall, the Higher Education Resource Center based here in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood, along with a similar one in the city of Brockton, Mass., has been open to all families who want help navigating the path to higher education.
Such help is often severely lacking in urban communities. Overall, minority performance on key factors like high-stakes tests has been persistently low. Combine that with a lack of basic information about preparing for college, and many young people face being left behind in an ever more education-hungry economy.
But the decline in support for traditional affirmative-action programs has forced advocates to look in new directions for solutions. And they're homing in on a critical element that the education reform movement has overlooked - effective pre-college counseling, especially for students who need it most.
Collaboration to fill the gaps is "the wave of the future; this is the way we're going to create systemic change in education," says Hector Garza, president of the Washington-based National Council for Community and Education Partnerships.
Indeed, it's not uncommon for urban guidance counselors to be responsible for hundreds of students - and thus to be too overwhelmed to truly make a difference in a student's academic life.
In response, Boston's church-based resource centers and other community programs around the country are starting to thrive like seeds in a well-fertilized garden.
The red flag for the Boston community was a report by the Massachusetts Institute for Social and Economic Research, which found that between 1980 and 1990, college graduation rates decreased by 9 percent for African-Americans and 14 percent for Hispanics in New England. Nationally, African-Americans and Latinos account for about 22 percent of the population, but 12 percent of college graduates.
After "listening sessions" with parents, educators, and religious leaders (all of whom are represented on resource-center boards), the project evolved a holistic approach - addressing not only academics, but cultural and spiritual issues as well.
"Imagine a family where the parents have never gone to college; when to submit the application, when to take the SAT, how many times to take the SAT - it becomes overwhelming for a number of parents," says Ingrid Broadnax of the Boston Education Collaborative, who oversees the church-based resource centers.
"One of the powerful things about this initiative is that the church is a place where people feel they can go in and be themselves," she adds.
In a study of 5,000 young people in Indiana, Prof. Gary Orfield of the Harvard Graduate School of Education found many of the same obstacles that the resource centers are attempting to address. "Kids whose parents hadn't been to college had a very poor idea of what they needed to do. They all wanted to go to college, but they weren't taking the right courses. Almost none of the families understood the financial-aid forms, and many of them had wildly inaccurate information.... Most of them had never been on a campus."
The strength of community-based efforts is that they can be tailored to meet the specific needs of the local population and, in turn, can work with educators to improve school policies.
For instance, many Latino parents are unaccustomed to taking out loans or being involved with the school system, because they weren't expected to do either in their home country, says Herenia Hernndez, a member of the Roxbury center's board who works in the bilingual department of the Somerville, Mass., schools. She came to the United States from El Salvador 10 years ago, and has since worked hard to continue her education and encourage her twin sons. "I believe God put me in this place to encourage other parents," she says. "I understand how difficult it is."
Yet the center reaches beyond the Latino community. Three-quarters of the center's participants aren't members of the congregation, and they find it through friends, family, or other churches.
Among those who show up before the SAT prep class this particular Wednesday night is Penny Price, a tall teen whose eyes almost close when she smiles wide. A junior at Boston East High School, she arrived from Honduras less than a year ago. She plans to be the first in her family to go to college. This week she'll be taking the SAT, and she's already in the habit of logging on to the Internet at the center to check out colleges. As she explores the Web site for Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., her friends ramble by to take a peek over her shoulder and chat.
"The first time I take the PSAT in my school, I find it really difficult," she says in her still-somewhat-new language. Now she's almost finished with the Get Ready! SAT-prep program, which is run by Harvard University student volunteers and typically has a ratio of one teacher for every five to seven students. "Since I've been taking it, it's been great, and I really feel that I've improved a lot.... You can speak with the teachers as friends, because they call you at home, ask if you did your homework, say 'How are you?' "
One goal of the center is to create a positive peer environment, to counteract negative attitudes toward academic achievement that many of these students encounter in school. Pedro Rodriguez, a wavy-haired junior at Latin Academy who hopes to have a broadcasting career, says he notices that contrast. "Mostly everybody here goes to some church, so it's a different attitude.... In Boston public schools, you have everybody - you have the church people, the ghetto people, you know, and the attitude about life is totally different. Over here, it's less hectic."
He says he's getting more here for free than he could through paying for a college-prep service like Kaplan. For instance, through one of the many programs the center works with he has been guaranteed a summer internship.
In Pedro's class, four students manage to fit words like "dissent" and "mitigate" into sentences, despite the distraction of the plastic toys lying around for the littlest of Sunday School students.
"The kids really want to be here," says Andrea Quintana, a Get Ready! volunteer. "Some are like, 'What are analogies?' Then they realize, it's really doable. It's just a matter of familiarity."
Without doing anything specifically to seek attention, the program caught the eye of the College Board's president, Gaston Caperton. With educational equity one of his top priorities, he recently made a stop on his multicity tour to see some of the resource center's volunteers and students, and to present them with a grant. "Programs like this can make up the difference," he says. "Here we are in Sunday School classrooms, which in most of America are closed except on Sunday.... To me, it's an inspiration."
In addition to making up for the overflowing caseloads of guidance counselors and youth ministers with one-on-one attention, the center plans to work with middle schools to develop "learning communities" - groups of students who will get intensive academic and moral support all the way through high school and college.
Samuel Acevedo, a youth minister at Len de Jud and director of the resource center, glows when he speaks of being at the forefront of "something that's happening radically in the world of education." And he constantly stresses that no single organization can do it alone (see story, left). "Five years ago, the whole idea of using a church as a platform for higher education would have seen a very, very tepid response," he says. "Sometimes it takes a good crisis to heat things up and start making people think creatively."
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