PUBLISHED: 4:39 PM on Wednesday, April 11, 2007
Education centers offer opportunities for all ages

Photo by Tamara Clover
  Isabella Eala, 11, cooks up a snack in the kitchen of the Cedar Park Learning Connection.
The Learning Connection serves Southeast Alaska as an arm of its parent organization, SERRC. In Juneau, the Connection has community education centers in apartments at Gruening Park, Cedar Park and also in Geneva Woods. The apartments were donated by the Alaska Housing and Finance Committee and allow the Connection to provide education for entire families close to home. The services are free to families who need them.

Just after 4 p.m. on a Monday at The Learning Connection in Cedar Park there's only a couple of students there for homework club so far.

One of them is Isabella Eala, 11. She's in the kitchen, cooking miniature pancakes and chatting about her day with early childhood educator Gianna Thornton, who is offering everyone slices of mango. When asked what she usually cooks up for after-school snacks, Eala pauses for a moment then laughs, "Nothing unhealthy!"

The apartment looks like a home, with a linoleum-floored kitchen and a carpeted "living" area equipped with a couch, rocking chair as well as tables and chairs for more serious work. The preschool room is upstairs. Although it looks like a home, there's a clear educational emphasis too. There are bins of books and toys around the living area. The posters children see lining the walls of their classrooms at school, line these walls too.

Last week there was a give-away of items collected from the Cedar Park community. There are still boxes of clothes, books and games in the living area, and each new arrival is encouraged to take whatever they're interested in.

During the day, adults come here for classes with adult educator Claire Fordyce, while Thornton leads pre-school classes for their young children. After an hour's break in the afternoon, the center re-opens for "homework club," an after-school program that gives students ages 5-18 a supportive environment to get, "at least 20 minutes" of homework finished each day.

There's a lot of learning going on outside the packets of homework too. Thornton said she attempts to show children that reading "can be a part of their daily lives, and about things they like.

Reading, reading, reading!" She introduces a student in the kitchen, to a copy of Sportsman's Illustrated with a fishing fly on the cover. He takes immediate interest and thumbs through the magazine for at least the next five minutes. She's pleased to have caught his interest.

This is Fordyce's second year as an instructor at Cedar Park and she said she "loves the idea of a community base" from which to teach.

The goal of the center is to promote literacy, which she said means more than just teaching people to read. Literacy can be verbal fluency too. In order to get people learning, she hopes to spark the curiosity of everyone who comes in.

Besides Thornton and Fordyce, Delphine is the third adult here this day. She has been attending adult education classes during the day, and this is her first afternoon helping with the homework club.

Two of her own children attend. As she introduces her to the afternoon set-up, Fordyce laughs with Delphine that as more children come in, they'll soon be running "like chickens with their heads cut off."

After families are found eligible for The Learning Connection program, the staff assess which supports will be needed by each family.

There are four important aspects of the services: one is tracking children's progress at school, another is educating adults, and this includes the third, teaching parenting skills, and finally, there are functions such as family nights that teach the entire family together. For eligible families all of these are provided free of charge.

The staff also conducts home visits, and act as liaisons between home and school, providing support for parents in communicating with teachers. However, each of the three community centers in Juneau are finding themselves under staffed, under funded, and limited in their ability to provide these intensive support services. For instance, at the Cedar Park center, there were originally five teachers. Now, there are three, and one is on extended medical leave.

A nationwide grant from Even Start provided the backbone of funding for the Learning Connection for more than ten years. Conceived in an effort to continue the success of the pre-school program Head Start, the grant originally staffed each center in Juneau with five full-time teachers. However, as the centers look ahead to a future independent of Even Start funding (originally donating 1,000,000 annually to Alaska programs, it currently donates 450,000), they're finding other ways to continue funding programs.

One of two teachers at Gruening Park, adult educator darren Snyder explains how all of The Learning Connection programs are seeking ways to stay afloat. So far, they're finding other funding sources, collaborating with other agencies, and even employing student letter writing.

"It's been successful to a degree," he said, and has forced the program to form creative collaborations. For instance, the KTOO radio station has a year-long grant to promote cardiac health, and has partnered with groups all over town, including the Gruening Park Learning Connection, to host events that educate families about healthy living. Hearthside Books also partners with The Learning Connection, donating the advance copies of children's books they receive from publishers. The support of the AHFC has also been vital to the program's survival.

Like Thornton and Fordyce, Snyder is enthusiastic about his job. He tells how he's had the chance to help students, now eighteen or older, get their GED's after he first met them as high risk kids when he taught at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. "Now they come through the front door because they want to be here," Snyder said.

He's also excited about the opportunity to help families. "We're right here when the parent and child are interacting together, so it's a really great opportunity to intervene," he says.

It's a "safe forum" for them. Snyder also notes that sometimes parents will also help each other out, giving tips and encouragement to other parents when trouble arises at the Learning Connection apartment. At Cedar Park, Fordyce talked about teaching parents simply by "modeling play." Many parents who frequent the apartment, she says, simply didn't learn how to play with children.

Teachers and students alike are positive and seem to feel they are making progress here at The Learning Connection. Playing with kids, sparking people's curiosity, and teaching in a home environment must be working.