Short stuff: Spotlight
If fifth-grader Tianna Pabon of Humboldt Park didn’t attend Centro Nuestro after school, she figures she’d just be sitting at home with nothing to do in a neighborhood that isn’t always safe for kids to play outside. So she enjoys attending the center, which opened this school year, where she can get homework help, play computer games and visit with friends.
"The teachers are really kind. They help us when we need help," Tianna says. "I think it’s really nice for them to put up a charity for us to come here."
Centro Nuestro, at 3222 W. Division St. in Chicago, has taken after-school care to a higher level. Unlike many after-school facilities which are available on a drop-in basis, students must sign up for Centro Nuestro’s program and pay a nominal fee. The center has grade-level curriculums that supplement what children are learning in school. Additionally, because Centro Nuestro is located in a primarily Latino area, programs are bilingual and non-native English speakers can get help learning the language.
But probably the most unique feature of Centro Nuestro is its focus on media. The Language Arts Media Center, funded by a grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation, features everything from computer software that helps kids learn English to digital and video cameras.
"Media has a way of cutting across cultural and language barriers, because bilingual kids will first understand through visual media," says Kate Chappell, vice president of development for Chicago Youth Centers, of which Centro Nuestro is a part. "There’s a level of learning through using media as an intermediate step."
From the computers available for the preschoolers to use to desktop publishing for high school students, media is used to foster an interest in reading and to allow children to express themselves in ways that may not be available to low-income families.
"We’d like the high school kids to do their own newsletter," says Marlis Broadhead, manager of grants and development communications for CYC. "One of the things we struggle with is the lure of neighborhood groups. So if you can emulate that and give them a sense of belonging, then they’re identifying with a healthy demographic and we’re giving them the tools to do this."
To incorporate media into the literacy curriculum, Centro Nuestro hired a literacy specialist who has a background in teaching literacy through the use of media. Additionally, staff bought new computers and equipment for the children to use.
"A lot of kids at CYC centers are in underserved neighborhoods and often don’t have computer access at home, so having computers at CYC is very important to us," Chappell says.
And making media readily available to the children at Centro Nuestro will serve them well when they enter college or the workforce, Broadhead says.
"Eighty percent of our graduating seniors go to college. We have an academic path (through CYC) that starts with literacy and goes up to college support," Broadhead says. "Media helps them be ready to work and go to college and lets them tap into their creativity. That’s absolutely critical for people to reach their full potential."
But the staff at CYC realizes literacy is about more than computers. That’s why they’ve created a bright, comfy reading loft above the computer area. Children are encouraged to climb into the loft, grab a book and an oversized pillow and lose themselves in the world of reading.
"The reading zone for younger kids is a place where they can learn to appreciate books and that’s a foundation for so many other things," Broadhead says. "The reading loft is a springboard into other creative ways of learning."
Providing kids with an alternative to the streets can have lasting effects, says Miriam Concepcion, a youth worker at Centro Nuestro. Concepcion attended a CYC center as a child and her children currently attend Centro Nuestro.
The center’s focus on the whole family with regular parenting and family events lets Centro Nuestro’s staff connect with more than just the children. "We have family nights once a month and our parents always come. We have 100 percent attendance," Concepcion says.
As Centro Nuestro continues to add more equipment to its Language Arts Media Center, parents will also be able to receive literacy and media training. "We try to think of these as community centers, connecting with the neighborhood," Broadhead says.
Liz DeCarlo is the senior editor at Chicago Parent, editor of Going Places and mother of three, Anthony, Emma and Grace.