Monday, March 28, 2011

Focus on Mt. Hope Learning Center: East Side Monthly's March 2011 Column

I don't want to let this very education-eventful March come to a close without sharing the month's "What Happened at School Today" column, which I write for East Side Monthly. This monthly, "What Happened at School Today" focused on Mt. Hope Learning Center. It's online here (flip digitally to page 41), still likely available in various neighborhood coffeeshops and other establishments, and I've reproduced it below.


A Visit to Mount Hope Learning Center (note: not the catchiest title. The piece in ESM was called "Keep Hope Alive," which could be the title of the Hope High School piece I'm finishing today that's slated to appear in May's issue. I have full faith in the editorial staff of ESM to come up with another equally catchy title.)

The East Side’s rich educational resources include the Mount Hope Learning Center (MHLC). As a parent at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, where MHLC runs an afterschool program (one of two in the school—the YMCA Out of School Time Program runs the other), I know the general outlines of the Center’s work. To find out more, I met with MHLC Executive Director Elizabeth Winangun in her sunny office at MHLC, a former residence at 140 Cypress Street that was converted to its current use in 2002.

Founded in 1998, the nonprofit MHLC focuses the Mount Hope neighborhood, which is demarcated by Hope Street, Rochambeau Avenue, the Amtrack/MBTA railroad tracks, and Olney Street. Mount Hope’s demographic statistics align with those that describe Providence’s poorer communities rather than the quality of life indicators of much of the generally affluent East Side. The 2000 Census reports that a third of Mount Hope’s children below the poverty level. While the 2010 Census data may report that this and other details have changed, Winangun reports that poverty and lack of opportunity still challenge many Mount Hope families, especially during our current economic circumstances.

The centerpiece of MHLC’s work is the afterschool program at King. Serving 100 students, the program is funded by a federal 21st Century Community Learning Grant administered through the Rhode Island Department of Education. Fifteen AmeriCorps team members representing a remarkable range of experience and other measures of diversity staff the afterschool program. The AmeriCorps team, funded through Serve Rhode Island, which administers federal funds from the Corporation of National and Community Service, is “the heart of the center,” Winangun says. Hailing from the Mount Hope neighborhood and far and wide beyond, the AmeriCorps team members dedicate 11 months to the program, earning a minimal weekly stipend and eventual education grants. MHLC staff members provide AmeriCorp members with extensive training and clear guidelines to develop capacity and skills that will stay in Mount Hope for the long haul.

Accordingly, the afterschool program at King does more than provide basic childcare. AmeriCorp team members support students’ academic achievement, develop their social skills, and provide activities that help them identify their interests through structured activities such as the fourth grade heath and nutrition group led by AmeriCorps educator Jawuan Meeks. Previously a high school social studies teacher in Boston, Meeks is working at MHLC while preparing to pursue a doctorate in education. “We’re working on finding ways to be physically active in the community and students are learning about food and nutrition,” Meeks describes. “Today, the kids got excited about radicchio, avocados, and grapefruit. They’re finding their passion for healthy food and nutrition at a young age, and they get their parents engaged and involved.”

While the program is dedicated to extending education past the formal end of the school day and has demonstrated a positive impact on students’ academic achievement, “It’s most important to work on the social stuff,” Winangun reflects. “At the end of the school day, some kids are joyful and some are miserable. Our aim is to get them all to a better place so that whoever picks them up between 5:00 and 6:00 sees a happier kid.  We teach kids how to shift gears.”

Though MHLC AmeriCorps team members devote most of their time to the afterschool program, they also work on other initiatives. Meeks is collaborating with two colleagues to create a pre-GED life skills program for young men who are out of school and work. “We don’t just want to ‘help’ the community,” says Meeks. “We assist the community to develop leadership and talent within the community itself and to take the reins when we’re gone.” Galvanized by the lack of meaningful neighborhood opportunities for 14 to 15 year old young women, another AmeriCorps member successfully wrote a grant to a Brown University philanthropy class for $15,000 to initiate a program that will train young women to identify community needs and plan projects in response for themselves and their peers.

Response to neighborhood needs has promoted the evolution of other MHLC programs, including school vacation and summer camp programs, a cooking class that’s a popular pick among middle schoolers who participate in the Providence After School Alliance AfterZone program, and a G-Tech sponsored computer lab run by part-time staffer Tom Lew. Having this ongoing support nearby is vital, Winangun believes, because for some residents, “There’s an invisible wall around Mount Hope. It doesn’t affect everyone but for some in our community, getting on a bus to take advantage of opportunities elsewhere is a huge challenge due to limited finances, fear or conflict, or anxiety about the unknown. We work with a lot of people who haven’t ventured far outside, and we need to be here for them.”

As has happened to many nonprofits in Providence and elsewhere, 2010 presented MHLC with near-knockout financial blows. As a result of management challenges, the Center went into receivership in April 2010, simultaneously weathering a change in leadership, extensive board member retirement, and a staff reduction from eight to two-and-a-half full time employees. MHLC’s excellent track record and neighborhood support have been keys to its survival. Mainstay board members Stacy Couto, Jorge Cardenas, Sylvia Soares, and MHLC co-founder Lenny Long either remained or returned to board service, thereby ensuring continuity and focus on continued service. Winangun, a longtime staff member who became executive director during this time of transition, noted that City Council representative Kevin Jackson and state representative Gordon Fox remained stalwart supporters throughout. All funders, including the United Way Rhode Island, kept funding in place throughout the receivership oversight period, and the Center did not interrupt service or programs.

Consider a donation of time or expertise to keep MHLC going strong. Though the afterschool program at King costs families just ten dollars per week per child, scholarships are in demand. And a $300 donation supports a student through a year of school vacation and summer camp experiences. It’s a great investment in the children of our community. Learn more about Mount Hope Learning Center and find out ways to support its work at

End note: Since I wrote that, the AmeriCorps program, which is the heart and soul of MHLC, is at risk of losing funding along with and many other AmeriCorps=staffed programs that serve communities nationwide. Click here to learn what you can still do to ensure that they don't. Thanks.

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