For the love of learning
Publication Date: Friday Jul 29, 1994

For the love of learning

The Center for a New Generation strives to keep kids turned on to education

by Heather Hardwick

The sounds of a rousing rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown" emanate from the windows of one classroom at Menlo Oaks School, while laughter and whispers are heard in another. What is it that makes these children so excited? New experiences, friends and "the opportunity to do more fun stuff." These children are the participants in a project called the Center for a New Generation, which is aimed at cultivating this youthful enthusiasm and directing it toward the positive benefits of education.

The center was founded in June 1992 by Condoleezza Rice, now provost of Stanford University, as a private, non-profit, community-based organization to meet the educational needs of children in East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park. It aims to strengthen the school-community partnership while at the same time enhancing the parent-child relationship.

The center takes a dual-pronged approach, with two core programs--the East Palo Alto Enrichment Academy and the Parent Education Center.

The Enrichment Academy is an after-school program during the academic year and a summer day program, both of which offer supplemental classes and activities to keep the children involved and interested in their education. The Parent Education Center provides workshops to aid parents in understanding and raising their children, encouraging them to be active participants in their children's education.

The Enrichment Academy serves about 100 students from fifth to eighth grades. During the school year, the center provides after-school activities for the children. A snack and recreational activity start off the afternoon, with two one-hour classes to follow, from four to six in the evening. The center provides a "safe zone," an alternative to the dangers of drugs and criminal activity, as well as a second home for latch-key kids.

During the summer months, the center hosts its most intensive program. The students are involved in classes and group activities all day. They are broken up into groups of 25 for hands-on academic classes in the morning, either in math and science or the language arts. Before this year, students were required to take classes from both broad areas, but this year the change was made toward specialization. This was done so that "the students can explore what they're good at and get an understanding of what it is to be an expert," said Beverly Scott, the center's executive director.

"They give us more opportunities to do hands-on things here, like this week we're building a bridge out of clay and toothpicks. In normal school they just give you books and tell you to open them," said seventh grader, Rajnesh Lal, who said he doesn't feel challenged by the classes offered at his regular school. "Also the teachers here are nicer and they have more time for you."

The afternoons are filled with community service, recreational activities and elective courses such as dance, art, music and drama. These programs seemed to be the hands-down favorites among most of the children. Kaleena Spencer, a sixth-grader and a member of the advanced band class, commented that "at school they only teach us the basics, but here they teach you so much more. I like it better here because I always get to have my instrument with me."

Fifth-grader Princeton Moore said, "I like the community service because you get to help out other people, and that's something that you don't always get to do."

Each week ends with a field trip on Friday, another favorite with the students. So far this year's excursions have included visits to Burgess Park and the California Academy of Sciences.

Lal said that the rules and attitude of the center have "encouraged me not to get into any more fights," while his classmate, David Latu, a sixth-grader, said, "It's made me trust myself every day."

The center aims to help those with the most intellectual potential whose educational needs are not met by the present school system. The students involved are the result of a selection process which involves the review of teacher recommendations and achievement test scores.

"We were concerned that there were very few successful community-based organizations in East Palo Alto and that there were certain needs that should be met that weren't being met by other foundations or programs," said Charlie Mae Knight, superintendent of the Ravenswood School District and a board member at the center.

"Programs are usually for kids who have failed, and no one wants to go where they're considered a failure. Our emphasis is on the youngsters who are gifted or who are already on the accelerated path.

"The purpose is to facilitate the instructional program for the youngsters who are often not served, to identify the brightest and the best so that they can reach their full potential. To provide a supplemental curriculum that will keep the child turned onto education," she said.

The success of the center can be gauged by the students involved, who have responded with excitement to the programs offered. "I think that the proof is in the pudding. The kids are the true endorsement," said Steve Player, a Palo Alto lawyer and board member of the center. "They're enthusiastic about the programs and about learning."

Bomani Siwatu, a member of the Ravenswood school board and father of a participant, was drawn to the center because of its professionalism. "They hired teachers that have already been working with the Ravenswood children, so there was no issue of capability or any questions about the qualifications of the staff," he said.

His daughter, Njemile, chooses to attend programs at the center over a wealth of other activities. "She's always been especially interested in math and science. I think that it's been able to increase her excitement. I think in part it's the experience of doing positive things--a peer group that's academically driven, that's a positive change," he said.

That emphasis seems to have sunk in, as the children involved all agreed that they'd rather be at the center, entrenched in the process of learning, than at home for the summer with nothing to do. Bill Rhea, a music teacher at the center, marveled at the desire present among those involved: "I'm really impressed with the kids. I think that some of them are going to do great things--you just can't hold them back."

The other key component in the maintenance of this enthusiasm is parental involvement and support. The center is founded upon the premise that "consistent parental involvement in the educational process leads to greater student achievement." Myrtle Walker, director for parent education, said the center provides a resource center and workshops that help the parents to "understand their role and responsibility to train and assist their children to succeed in school."

There will be two workshops offered this summer: "How to raise a successful teen" and "How to get your child on the college track." Such programs were initially intended primarily for the parents of the students already involved with the center, but because of their success they are now open to all parents.

Additionally, in conjunction with Canada College, the center offers classes for parents in a number of academic areas, such as English, conversational Spanish and early childhood development.

Starli Hampton, a participant in the Parent Education Center, said she was initially drawn by the early childhood development classes. A first-time mother, she attended the class in the hopes of getting some helpful tips and also to work on her education on the way to becoming a home day care provider. She said she was impressed with the classes and enrolled in several more workshops. She has since become an active member at the center and plans to enroll her daughter in the future.

"I think that the Parent Center is the draw--we feel like we're involved. It's one thing to go in and talk to your child's teachers, but to meet other parents and find out that they face many of the same problems . . . I feel that that is a very valuable resource."

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