Extending power of knowledge

Opportunity: A partnership of schools, business and community offers children an after-school program to expand their learning.

April 18, 2001|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Smiling children joined hands in a "unity circle" to sing their theme song: "Knowledge is Power." They had just finished after-school snacks and were ready to begin another session of learning in a Howard County program that is unique for its partnership with school, business and community.

These elementary school children are able to attend the "Learning Center" in Columbia's Rideout Heath townhouses, because it is in their neighborhood.

The Rideout Heath location is one of five community-based centers operated through the efforts of the Family and Community Outreach and Black Student Achievement programs of the Howard County school system, the Columbia Housing Corp. and numerous volunteers and business partners.

Jean Lewis, family and community outreach specialist for Howard County schools, said the learning centers have provided tutoring, mentoring, homework help and other support to the same communities of children for five years.

"This year, our fifth-graders are the first group to have gone all the way through," Lewis said.

Learning centers operate after school and for six weeks during the summer.

Carole MacPhee, executive director of the Columbia Housing Corp., said the centers have been funded by a small state grant, "a lot of donations ... in goodies and snacks" and by numerous "partnerships" with groups that donate everything from meeting space to field trips for the children.

Lewis called the housing corporation a "model partner," noting that the board donated its meeting room so it could be transformed into a learning center.

In February, the corporation was awarded a $40,000 grant from the Governor's Office on Children through the supervision of the Howard County Local Children's Board.

MacPhee said the grant has allowed the learning centers to increase services. They have extended the Monday-through-Thursday homework club to include a Friday enrichment program and a Saturday math program, "so that kids can expand their math abilities." The grant also will fund a staff position.

But the children at the Rideout Heath Learning Center don't seem to be aware of the administrative details of their neighborhood club. Rather, they see the faces of the many community volunteers who teach and mentor them.

On a recent Friday, Emerson C. Walden of Columbia joined Lewis and other mentors to teach chess to the children. Walden represented the Council of Elders, a local African-American outreach group of mostly retirees.

"We are committed to giving back to the community," Walden said. He said the group sponsors chess classes "to stimulate [the children's] minds" and to augment school math programs.

The Rideout Heath children were preparing for a chess tournament sponsored by the Council of Elders. They paired off across rows of chessboards and checked how to move the chess pieces from direction sheets that they held tightly in their hands. The children reminded each other to sit with proper "chess posture" and explained the intricacies of the game to a visitor.

"They like the element of competition," Lewis said. "All kids want to achieve. All kids want to get better and better."

Lewis said the centers rely on volunteers to help the children achieve.

Women from the Columbia Continental, an African-American organization, have acted as "unofficial godmothers," sorority members from Alpha Kappa Alpha have been mentors to some of the girls, and village centers have donated space.

The program always welcomes community support, and it needs tutors and physical resources.

"We want to help people who want to help our kids," Lewis said.

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