Extending Learning Time for Disadvantaged Students - Volume 2 Profiles of Promising Practices - 1995
A r c h i v e d I n f o r m a t i o n
Public Housing Development After-School Study Centers
Omaha Housing Authority And Omaha Public Schools
- Public housing-based
- Collaborative structure
Overview In 1986, the Omaha Housing Authority (OHA) and the Omaha Public Schools (OPS) formed a partnership to help public housing residents gain economic and social independence and to reduce the high dropout rate among area teenagers. The partnership established study centers at four public housing developments, where volunteers provide individualized tutoring to students twice a week after school. Three of the centers also have computers and printers, donated by local businesses and foundations, which students use for special projects.
Because of citywide busing for desegregation, students attending the study centers represent every public school in the city. The housing projects where the centers are located have long histories of student truancy and dropping out, teen pregnancy, and drug dealing. To help combat these problems, returning youths to the classroom became the priority of the OHA-OPS partnership. On a typical day, between 30 and 40 students attend each of the four study centers. The racial composition varies; one center serves a group in which 90 percent of the students are Anglo, while another serves a group that is 80 percent African American. Approximately 60 percent of the students attend elementary school, 25 percent attend middle school, and 15 percent attend high school.
Major Program Features
- Planning and design. The study centers grew from the housing authority-school system partnership, which began in 1986 at the urging of the OHA executive director, who convinced the superintendent of public instruction that they shared an interest in ensuring students' success in school. The OHA director organized biannual meetings with district school administrators, principals, teachers, school counselors, OHA residential program staff, and elected officers of the housing projects. The group's early meetings focused on strategies for dealing with the high dropout rate through homework assistance and constructive after-school activities in an atmosphere where learning and success in school are valued. Partnership members continue to meet twice a year to discuss the study center program.
The program added a computer component when organizers realized that many African American students in Omaha do not have easy access to technology in school because, under desegregation guidelines, they cannot attend technology magnet schools unless they live in a magnet school attendance area--and OHA family projects are not located in magnet areas.
- Academic focus. The project centers, staffed by retired teachers, university students, local business people, and other volunteers, are open from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. twice a week. The volunteers provide individualized help with homework in math, reading, and social studies, and assistance using computers and printers to complete homework or special projects. Students can choose from software including WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, Reader Rabbit, and Math Rabbit. Many volunteers also encourage journal writing.
Regularly scheduled special projects include math and science contests, publication of a quarterly housing project community newsletter, presentations by OHA drug and alcohol education coordinators, and team sports events. In 1990, a public school teacher who received a $10,000 science teaching award spent some of it on hands-on science labs at one of the study centers. In one such experiment, elementary school students dissected owl droppings to discover mouse bones.
OPS supplies the centers with public school textbooks as a resource for volunteers and to help students who forget their books. OPS also provides desks, chalkboards, workbooks, and other teaching aids (e.g., math games used in some Title I schools). In addition, one of the study centers is a former city library, and its books are "on loan" to the center. Students check out these books and discuss them with a tutor upon completion. The OHA holds a quarterly reading contest, with a prize--a book, T-shirt, or bicycle donated from within the community--for the student who reads and completes oral reports on the most books.
- Organizational management/structure. The study centers are located at the housing developments--in one case in a former library, and at other sites in community or recreation facilities. The resident relations coordinator at each housing project runs the study centers, making sure that volunteers are available and serving as a central contact for teachers, school staff, or community members who may have concerns about students. Community members contact the coordinator to volunteer time or donate instructional materials or contest prizes. Volunteers include the OHA staff, students from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and Creighton University (including 20 medical students who volunteer regularly), current and retired school teachers, and business people.
- Parent and community involvement. Connections between the OHA and the school system extend far beyond the donation of materials to the study centers. The two entities work as partners to support families and students who attend the centers, so that the centers' ultimate goal of school success stays within reach. For example, if a child is absent for more than one day, the school calls both parents and the housing authority staff. Teachers make home visits whenever students repeatedly miss school, and direct families to agencies that can help them deal with shortages of food, clothing, or child care. If a child misses a school bus, any OHA staff person who sees the child has the authority to interrupt his or her activities and take the child to school; the resident relations coordinator follows up to determine why the child missed the bus.
To ensure that public housing parents participate in parent-teacher conferences, teachers visit the housing developments ten times a year to meet with parents who cannot get to the school. In addition, school staff frequently contact OHA staff--primarily the resident coordinator--when students have excessive absences or need tutoring.
The OHA study centers depend on the community for volunteer tutors and many donated materials, including paper, pencils, and 27 computers and 12 printers contributed by computer corporations, local businesses, and foundations. The community also provides incentives--consistent with the purpose of the study centers--for public housing students to succeed in school; seven colleges have reserved scholarships for high school graduates who live in Omaha public housing. Creighton University regularly provides a scholarship to a qualified public housing student, which pays $16,000 annually for four years. Eighteen students from the housing developments, many of whom attended the study centers, currently have such scholarships.
The housing authority also contributes funds from a foundation established by the director to award $2,500 scholarships to the housing developments' high school graduates with the highest grade-point averages. OHA also awards certificates of recognition and $100 U.S. savings bonds to high school graduates with perfect school attendance, many of whom have participated in the study centers.
- Funding. The study centers operate at virtually no cost, since all tutors are volunteers and all materials are donated. The OHA provides building space and a residential coordinator to supervise the program (although the coordinator has many other OHA responsibilities). Students do not have transportation costs because the study centers are located at the housing developments. The program uses computers and printers donated by Apple Computers, IBM, AT&T, and local businesses. A local foundation awarded OHA a $5,000 "challenge grant" and a matching grant of $10,000 to augment OHA's expenditure of $10,000 in drug prevention funds on computers for the study centers.
- Assessment and accountability. The OHA residential relations division reports quarterly to the OHA Board of Commissioners on the goals and objectives of OHA programs, including the study centers. These reports also go to several community agencies and organizations. In addition, OHA relies on frequent, informal feedback from housing residents and school staff to determine the effectiveness of the study centers.
Networking within the community is the key to sustaining a successful volunteer program, according to the head of the resident relations division at OHA. Housing authority staff belong to many boards of directors, for organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs, and deliberately attend community functions at which they can talk about the study centers and the needs of the housing project students. The OHA director meets monthly with community officials, including the police chief, the school superintendent, and the mayor. "We don't have to ask for things, people just give to us--they bring things to our door," the director says. "The most important thing to remember is that anybody has something to give. A parent may not be able to tutor a child in algebra, but they can discuss a book--or sometimes just the presence of that adult may lend children encouragement and send a [positive] message."
The director also advises that volunteers should not be pushed into a long-lasting or permanent commitment: "If a volunteer says they could only come three times, or they only have one dictionary, that's fine. You can't pressure people into an all-or-nothing situation. No one will volunteer if they think it has to be forever."
Transportation to the program is not provided; students walk from their homes to the study centers, which are located on housing project grounds.
Evidence of Success
The OHA estimates that 90 percent of participating students return to the study centers regularly. School teachers report that in many cases student grades have risen dramatically, and they witness great improvement in students' classroom behavior. Several of an estimated 18 public housing students who receive full scholarships to local colleges and universities have attended the OHA study centers. The first OHA public housing resident scheduled to graduate from Creighton in 1994 was on the dean's list for four years.
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