Baltimore County

Community-based learning centers serve 1,800 kids in 15 years

It was a hot July day, but inside Swansfield Elementary School the halls were cool. Children giddily ran to their next program — chess lessons, perhaps, or maybe play practice or musical Spanish instruction.

After a few minutes the halls were once again empty. Sounds drifted out of classrooms: the rhythm of a boom box from a dance class, the shouted commands of a karate instructor, and down the hall a group of kids reciting Chinese in unison.

For a month in the summer, the corridors of Swansfield Elementary, in the Columbia village of Harper's Choice, were full of energy and anticipation, as hundreds of six- through nine-year-olds were eager to get to their next class.

Students at the summer session for the Howard County Black Student Achievement Program's Community-based learning center (CBLC) program, an affordable, government-sponsored learning enrichment program for elementary and middle schoolers, participate in a number of activities during the summer that are intended to bring them new experiences and enrich the lessons they learn during the school year.

The program this year celebrated its 15th official anniversary, though it has operated informally since 1993. During that time, it has served an estimated 1,800 children from across Howard County.

The array of offerings is vast: technology, art, science, Chinese, Spanish through music, Portuguese, scrapbooking, dance, karate, theater, chess, health and fitness, MESA (Math, Engineering and Science Achievement) and creative writing.

"We're growing, we're growing every year," said program administrator Erica Waters. The summer program started six years ago with 160 kids and about half as many class offerings. Now, it's at full capacity with 267 children.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in July, Waters gave a tour of the program, stopping each time she passed a student to greet them by name and inquire about their activities.

Outside of a science classroom, Waters admired the contents of a plastic cup that seven-year-old Sahara Ukaegbu, dressed in a pink "Girls Rock" T-shirt, held eagerly. Inside the cup, a thin green, leafy stalk had sprouted up.

"Wow, that's so big," Waters said before she asked Sahara what she planned to do with the plant.

"My mom knows some type of soup that goes with lima beans," Sahara said with a laugh.

After Sahara left, Waters explained what Sahara and other kids likely would be doing without the summer program.

"A lot of them would have stayed home with older siblings, most of them would have been doing nothing," she said, adding: "Or they would have been shipped off to grandma's."

The summer program is $150 for children who participate in the after-school program during the school year and $450 for students unaffiliated with the after-school program. The after-school program, which has expanded from one location in 1993 to six locations, is free.

Impressive growth

While the summer CBLC program has expanded dramatically, program facilitator Patricia Branner-Pierce said the after-school program has grown even more.

Oddly, Branner-Pierce said, the community-based learning center model happened almost by accident. In 1993 then-teacher Jean Lewis noticed a child in her Roselyn Rise Apartment Complex, in Columbia, struggling over math homework.

"He got stuck on one of the problems and it just so happened that Jean Lewis was in the vicinity and said, 'I'll tutor him,' " Branner-Pierce recalled.

From that offer, an idea was born. Lewis began to take more and more apartment-dwelling children under her wing. By 1996, Community Homes, which is under the Columbia Housing Corporation and owns several subsidized apartment complexes in Columbia, partnered with the county school system and launched the CBLC program officially, adding tutoring centers in vacant apartments in the Rideout Heath and Waverly Winds complexes, both in Columbia.

Since then, the program has targeted low- and moderate-income apartment complexes as a way to encourage resident children to study and complete homework, and to explore activities such as chess and creative writing. The centers are a tool in closing the academic achievement gap between lower-income students and students with plenty of family resources, according to program tutor Andrea Wilborn, who offered an example.

"There was one girl (in 1999), she lived three doors from where we held the club and her mother was a drug addict. Every day we literally had to go three doors down and knock on the door to get her (the daughter) to come to the program and get her out of that environment," Wilborn recalled. "Without those community homes being there a lot of students would be just displaced."

WIlborn said the program was much more "grassroots" in the beginning.

"When we first started, the kids were just running around the neighborhoods. ... We would actually go knock on the doors to try and get kids to come to the program," she recalled. "Now, before the school year begins, the program is full."

From student to mentor

According to Pierce, several children left the program as middle schools and became mentors in high school and tutors in the summer program in college.

Kenyatta Drake, a 21-year-old football player at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, is one such student.

"The kids respond to me really well, they recognize me from years past," he said. "It's good for them to have a mentor, I've been in similar situations as them."

Drake said that in middle school, before he was involved in the CBLC program, he was lost academically.

"Those were my tougher years," Drake said. "The program really helped me prepare for school because they teach you things ahead of time. ... It kept me focused."

Grace Morris, executive director of the Columbia Housing Corporation, said the after-school program has given many kids the focus necessary to blossom academically and socially.

"It's a free, safe place that's close where the kids can go. They're going to have adults' attention; they're going to get assistance with their homework," Morris said. "These kids are definitely given an advantage."

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