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Tutors take it off campus

New program sends Concordia students into area classrooms
by: JIM CLARK, Concordia student Becky Miller volunteers as a tutor at Rosemary Anderson High School as part of a new outreach program at the Northeast Portland college.

Concordia University's red-brick buildings and lush, green campus give it the air of an Ivy League school, which offers quite a contrast with the struggles of the neighborhood schoolchildren in the surrounding blocks of North and Northeast Portland.

Now, Concordia, a private, Lutheran liberal-arts university of 1,600 students at 2811 N.E. Holman St., is trying to address that disconnect.

'The university has been here 100 years. I've been in Portland 54 years, known as a connector in the community,' said Gary Withers, the school's executive vice president. 'Chuck (Schlimpert, Concordia's president) called and said, What can we do to make a difference? No. 1 in our mission (statement) is preparing leaders for the transformation of society.'

Withers was named to his post in May 2005 with the charge of elevating the school's role in the community after similar positions at Portland State University, the nonprofit Children's Institute of Oregon, and Metropolitan Family Services Inc.

So last fall, Concordia began a tutoring program that pairs its students with children in the surrounding public and private schools who need an academic boost that their parents or siblings aren't able to provide.

Over the past year, 50 Concordia students volunteered to serve a total of 130 children in kindergarten through high school with after-school help in subjects like reading and math.

The program is in part inspired by the nonprofit Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in underserved inner-city and rural schools and which provided some of the $10,000 in grant money for Concordia's effort. Additional grants came from private donors including PacifiCorp.

The tutors signed up to volunteer at least an hour a week for the 15-week semester, attended training workshops funded by the grants, and met the children at the tutoring sites: the schools, Concordia and local churches.

The result, Withers said, has been the seedling of a partnership with the community that he hopes will be the start of a beautiful relationship.

'We want to identify the challenges, craft the solutions and become part of the solution,' he said. 'We want to respect, honor and support this diverse community. … If they can succeed in school, they can succeed in life.'

Tutors add to opportunities

According to statistics the school has gathered from 2000 U.S. Census results, 11 percent of households in the Concordia neighborhood include adults 25 or older who didn't complete high school.

That number is 22 percent in the Cully neighborhood, to the east, 32 percent in Woodlawn, to the west, and 26 percent in the King neighborhood, to the southwest.

Those neighborhoods include a significant number of minority residents, both black and Hispanic. Charles McGee, a young community leader who formerly ran for the Portland school board and organizes a group called the Black Parent Initiative, is helping the university connect with families in the neighborhood.

'It's about breaking down the barriers, making (college) more than a distant dream,' he said. 'As a black community, there's a level of ownership we have to take. It's about us saying, 'Yeah, we have this deficiency, but we have this opportunity.' '

Teachers appreciate the help

Becky Miller, 21, a Concordia junior who is majoring in elementary education, squeezes tutoring into her already-packed schedule, filled with choir activities, 20 hours of work each week and her course load of 19 credits.

Twice a week she helps students with their homework in study hall at Rosemary Anderson High School, an alternative public school in North Portland for kids who've had past problems with attendance, academics and behavior.

'If you can instill values and a routine, get them into a mode of 'I can succeed, I can do this, and I'm not afraid to ask for help,' if you can get them past that, they do want to succeed. But life's really hard,' she said.

Teachers say the tutors' work is invaluable. 'When we have 20 kids in here, and five of them waiting to see me, just having adults who care about education in that setting is really critical,' said English teacher Andrew Moore, who oversees the study hall period when Miller visits.

Lynn Keyne-Michaels, who coordinates Concordia's Teacher Corps program in the school of education, said the parents have really been pitching in, and sometimes benefiting as well. One tutor helped a child's mother apply to college online, she said. 'Another mom brought her kid's report card (to the tutoring session) to ask for help with the child's weaknesses.'

With $20,000 in grants set for next year, Concordia hopes to expand the program to include twice as many tutors and kids. The school also is in the midst of a $15 million capital campaign to build a new library that will have a large community room.

Also starting next year, the school will give away a full-ride scholarship for one student who will be the first in the family to attend college.

Kay Castillo, of Northeast Portland, sends her seventh-grader, eighth-grader and kindergartner to the tutoring program twice a week after school at the Rehoboth World Healing Center, a neighborhood church close to Vernon Elementary.

'At home they do nothing, watch TV. They need that program to push them into reading,' Castillo said. 'They say, 'If you don't have any homework, you need to create some.' '

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