Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

On-site learning centers offer benefits to students – and renters

A center in a Section 8 housing development in Madison, Wis., supports students with a team of residents-turned-staff eager to help their neighbors succeed.

Gretel Kauffman/The Christian Science Monitor
Pat Wongkit, program director at Northport Apartments, works on a computer in the facility's community learning center.

When it came to getting homework done, the odds weren’t in Kebba Bojang’s favor. Like many teenagers, he admits, he had a tendency to procrastinate. And with no computer at home and the nearest library a long walk away, assignments often ranged from difficult to impossible. 

Unlike most other high school students in similar predicaments, however, Mr. Bojang was able to find a solution in – quite literally – his own backyard. 

Bojang, now 24 and entering his second year of pharmacy school at the University of Iowa, is representative of a range of success stories to have come out of Northport Apartments, a Section 8 housing development on Madison’s East Side. At the heart of the 140-unit apartment complex, both physically and metaphorically, is a humble brick building that holds a roomful of computers, a few quiet meeting rooms, and a team of residents-turned-staff eager to help their neighbors succeed. 

After moving to Northport his sophomore year of high school, Bojang, a native of The Gambia, began frequenting the on-site learning center to study on his own, later taking advantage of a math tutoring program offered there by visiting students from the University of Wisconsin. When graduation rolled around, the center offered him a scholarship to help pay for his undergraduate education at the University of Dubuque in Iowa.

A quiet workspace – and high expectations

Access to a quiet workspace, up-to-date technology, knowledgeable tutors, and scholarship money was all very helpful, Bojang says. But he also found something less tangible at the learning center: high expectations. As one of the older students at the center at the time, he recalls, one of the employees there would hold him up as an example for the younger children. She always seemed happy to see him, he adds, and would notice when he wasn’t there. 

“She was kind of pushing me,” he says. “When I have this feeling that someone is expecting me to be somewhere, it kind of pushes me to go there so I don’t disappoint the person. My fear of disappointment takes over my procrastination issues.” 

This kind of motivation, driven by interpersonal relationships and a strong sense of community, is a primary goal of the on-site community learning centers at Northport, the neighboring Packer Townhouses, and two similar low-income housing facilities in Milwaukee, all of which are managed by the nonprofit group Housing Ministries of American Baptists in Wisconsin (HMABW). On a practical level, the resident-designed and -staffed learning centers create jobs for those who live there and make it easier for learners young and old to access the educational resources they need. But beyond their convenience, Northport and Packer residents say, the centers have nurtured a sense of community and ownership, empowering students to take on leadership roles in other aspects of their life. 

“The kids are seeing that it’s not only having access to technology or getting homework done,” says Sainey Nyassi, a longtime resident and current manager assistant at Northport Apartments. ”They’re seeing the human aspect.”

‘Asset-rich and access-poor’ 

The facilities in Madison and Milwaukee offer services to residents of all ages, spanning from pre-school children to older adults. Offerings include Head Start programming, after-school homework help, one-on-one tutoring for adults, a summer program with field trips, and English classes for the facilities’ large Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant populations. For recent graduates and older adults hoping to attend college, scholarships are available. Both services and scholarships are funded through a portion of rent profits. 

Over their twenty-plus years of existence, the Northport and Packer apartments have come to be regarded as a model for community-based learning in the Madison area, according to Madison Mayor Paul Soglin. 

“It’s more than, pay the rent and you’ve got an apartment with running water and heat,” says Mayor Soglin, who in January publicly recognized the Rev. Dr. Carmen Porco, CEO and executive director of HMABW, as the recipient of a joint city-county humanitarian award that honors those who “reflect the values of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” “It’s a more holistic approach in regards to the entire family, ranging from the needs of toddlers and infants to the future of the parents.” 

The numbers suggest an effective model for improving academic performance. High school graduation rates among students residing in the Madison facilities have fluctuated between roughly 90 and 100 percent in recent years, rates significantly higher than Madison public schools’ four-year graduation rate of 78 percent. More than 70 percent of high school graduates from the HMABW facilities go on to attend college.

Some of the Madison centers’ success may be due to the convenience they offer in a city that Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, describes as ”asset-rich and access-poor.” 

“We have everything in this town that you would want in a high-quality community,” she says, “but the access to it is very, very poor for some people.”

One common challenge for low-income families, Professor Ladson-Billings notes, is transportation. Others may lack the financial means to enroll their children in expensive educational programs.

“Having those centers right there on site means that’s one less barrier that people have to try to get over,” she says.  

Seeing the human aspect

For young people growing up in low-income communities, exposure to people from similar backgrounds in leadership roles can be life-changing, observers say. Oftentimes, schools serving low-income students will bring in people from outside the community when career day rolls around, Ladson-Billings notes, sending a “subtle message” that “what people do in this community isn’t that valuable.”

By staffing the learning centers with residents, Dr. Porco and his team aim to send the opposite message.  

“People see that people like them are running the show,” he says. “For once, they own the institutional base. And that makes a difference.” 

There is some evidence, through anecdotes, that the strategy is working, as young people living in the housing facilities take on leadership roles at school in student government, sports, and other clubs. Sandra Willis-Smith, resident and manager at Packer Townhouses, proudly tells of her middle school-age son’s job helping social workers by talking with classmates who have behavioral problems, an accomplishment she attributes “one hundred percent” to his experiences at the learning center. 

The neighborly bond between residents enables some degree of flexibility when it comes to running the centers, says Pat Wongkit, program director at Northport, where she has lived for 33 years and worked for 22. Sometimes, she’ll let young people stay and do their work after hours to accommodate for busy schedules and family demands. 

“I trust them,” she explains, “and they trust me.” 

These relationships between employees and their fellow residents, cultivated through facility-wide picnics and holiday celebrations, are one of the centers’ greatest strengths, those who live there say.

Ms. Willis-Smith, a resident for more than two decades, recalls participating in meetings to design the learning centers upon first moving from Joliet, Ill., and then in the groundbreaking ceremony in ‘93. In the years that followed, she climbed her way up from receptionist to manager. Being a part of the community, Willis-Smith believes, has allowed her to build stronger relationships with the residents she serves. 

“They feel more comfortable with me because they know I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve seen that,” she says. “So I’m able to help them out more.”

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