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Sunday, 07 December 2014 22:00

Cook Library Scholars program helps Hispanic students achieve academic success

Written by  Ruth Terry
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Marjorie Kuipers, executive director, Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities. Marjorie Kuipers, executive director, Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities. PHOTO: KATY BATDORFF

There is no shortage of nonprofit organizations working to decrease poverty, improve educational attainment and help families in disadvantaged communities.

But it’s rare that an organization can address all these issues and achieve measurable success in its first year — all through a single program.

That’s exactly what makes Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities’ Cook Library Scholars program exceptional and the reason the organization was selected as the winner of the inaugural MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofit Award in the programs and services category.

Cook Library Scholars, the “brainchild” of executive director Marjorie Kuipers, is the most recent addition to Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities’ educational programming.

Launched in September 2013, the Cook Library Scholars program is designed to improve educational outcomes among Hispanic/Latino children, who make up more than one-third of GRPS students and have twice the dropout rate of their white peers.

Thirty-three students, ranging from first through eighth grades, are currently participating in the pilot project. As children age up in the program, five first graders are added per year. All students will continue in the Cook Library Scholars program until they graduate high school.

In just over one year, the program has demonstrably improved students’ grades, the agency reported.

At its most basic level, Cook Library Scholars helps students get better grades by providing homework help, access to library materials and other educational resources. These things may seem commonplace to many West Michigan residents, but they’re anything but common for the families that GAAH serves, Kuipers said.

“Kids need help with their homework. Our kids just don’t have that,” said Kuipers, who mobilized support from the W.K. Kellogg, Steelcase and Wege Foundations to fund the Cook Library Scholars program. “The majority of our students are children of families who have emigrated here. Most of them are children of first generation immigrants, so they have their own special challenges.

“A lot of the parents of our children come from countries where education is not compulsory (and they) don’t speak English. Quite often, our parents only have a second, third or fourth grade education. There’s a disturbing amount of illiteracy in their native language and … in English.”

Experts consider parents’ educational attainment a predictor of their children’s future academic success, an accepted model GAAH aims to disrupt with its holistic approach.

That said, the program was never intended to replace parents’ roles in their children’s education. In keeping with GAAH’s mission, Kuipers sought to elevate whole families, not just children. To increase parental engagement, she hired a family outreach coordinator who could interact directly with parents on a peer-to-peer level.

Former GAAH client Monica Zavala took on the role after her own children successfully participated in past programs put on by the nonprofit.

Originally from Mexico, Zavala has also experienced her share of challenges trying to assimilate to West Michigan when she moved here 15 years ago, an experience she draws on when working with Cook Library Scholars’ parents.

Zavala’s mandate to “involve the parents in the programs” can mean anything from attending parent-teacher conferences at students’ schools to connecting families with community resources provided by GAAH’s nonprofit partners.

“We think it’s really important for the parents to be involved,” Zavala said. “Once a month, we have parent meetings. We talk about different topics that we think will help these families.”

In addition to helping parents build practical skills, Zavala also leads workshops that deal with topics such as healthy parent-child relationships, effective communication, and positive reinforcement, all skills that may not have been modeled in the parents’ own homes.

“Last semester, we had a workshop for the parents on 101 ways to say ‘good job’ to your kids,” Zavala said.

During the session, she asked parents to write down negative messages that they had heard from their own family members and put them in a container. Then, participants discussed how old they were when they internalized these negative messages — in many cases, it was at about the same age of their own children.

“A lot of times where you hear something, it sticks,” Zavala said. “Now the parents pay more attention to these things.”

Before participating in the Cook Library Scholars program, many parents thought college was “too expensive,” Zavala said. But with her help, they have started to embrace the value of academic achievement and the importance of a college education. For example, they learn how to open a savings account and are offered workshops on scholarships and grants and tips for visiting a college campus as a family.

“Now they are thinking more about higher education. (Students) are starting to think about going to college, and the parents are getting ready for that,” Zavala said. “The message is: We are getting ready for the time when you are going to go to college.”

Over time, Cook Library Scholars’ student-centered interventions — via homework help, media training, interviews with community leaders, or leadership training — coupled with the education and social support that Zavala provides parents starts a kind of positive feedback loop.

Parents build up children with positive reinforcement, which improves family dynamics, helps students’ self-esteem and heightens their enthusiasm for working hard in school. As they “age up” in the program, those years of consistent messaging about the importance of education from teachers, GAAH staff, visiting speakers and their parents makes high school graduation and college education the obvious choice, Zavala said.

“We have high expectations for these students and we believe in them,” she said.

The hope is that the 33 students will eventually become professionals who will give back to their community, said Kuipers, who intentionally embedded leadership training and civic engagement into the Cook Library Scholars program.

“From a very early age, we start talking to kids about leadership and we expose them to leaders in the community,” she said. “As they grow up in the program … their leadership training expands.”

Students also build media literacy, visit local arts institutions during the program, and participate in other “experiences and enrichment activities” that Kuipers hopes will eventually catalyze into “aha moments” for the young scholars.

“What we want to do through this program is expose them to many things, many activities, many ways of looking at the world,” Kuipers said. “We’re looking for those moments where we can let the future in for those scholars.”

GAAH was established by the Dominican Sisters and the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association to mitigate crime and poverty prevalent in Grand Rapids’ Hispanic community. Founders addressed these intertwined socio-economic issues with interdisciplinary programs rooted in creativity, leadership and lifelong learning.

“As the president of the board, I can’t say enough good things about Marj and the staff,” said Laura Radle, who leads the GAAH board of directors.

Sidebar: Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities

  • Mission: To enrich the lives of neighborhood youth through diverse and engaging programs at the Cook Arts Center and the Cook Library Center.
  • Service area: Roosevelt Park neighborhood, Grand Rapids
  • Executive Director: Marjorie Kuipers (12 years in that position)
  • Number of employees: 5 full-time, 7 part-time
  • Annual budget: $550,000
  • Best practices: Applying a multi-faceted solution to complex socio-economic problems of poverty, violence and low educational attainment. Addressing these real-life needs for underserved Hispanic families with practical academic, language and life skills support. Seamlessly integrating long-term strategies, such as building creativity, improving family relationships and exposing students to community leaders, with day-to-day support
Read 2518 times Last modified on Tuesday, 09 December 2014 14:26

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