PORTLAND — The sixth-grader’s attention shifted from schoolbook to paper as she worked on her report about the stars.

How many stars? Thousands, she said promptly – millions.

Jillions, asserted a kindergartner at the next table.

Nearby, Nadar Mohamud gently prompted Abdi Mohamed, a ninth-grader, as he worked on an essay about Acadia National Park for his earth science class, asking him about the history of the region and the fishing that French and English settlers did there.

There are students of all ages at the study center, working on subjects ranging from math to current events, science to history. What they all have in common is their neighborhood: They’re all from the Kennedy Park public housing complex.

At the heart of Kennedy Park is the study center, two modest-sized rooms that pack in 20 to 30 kids on any given night. The kids come to get help from Mohamud and Rita Achiro, two AmeriCorps coordinators who have been hired to run the study center for a year.

The center is one of three run by the Portland Housing Authority. The others are at Sagamore Village and Riverton Park. They give students who live in public housing a place to go for help with homework.

It’s help that any other child might get from their parents, but the students who use the study centers are pretty much exclusively from immigrant families. Many of the parents don’t have the English skills to help their children with schoolwork. Or the parents may have several jobs, or work at night, so they don’t have the time.

“We lessen – or at least lower – some of the barriers these families face,” said Michael Wilson, the education center program manager and deputy director of public housing and resident services.

Achiro, 19, and Mohamud, 24, push the importance of education to students of all ages, and help older kids with the college process, from identifying schools to working on applications and getting recommendations. Their influence is apparent, even on the younger ones.

“School’s the No. 1 key to everything,” said 13-year-old Warda Abukar, a seventh-grader at King Middle School. “If you don’t go to school, you’re not going to have anything. You’re not going to have a job, a house – anything.”

Mohamud and Achiro provide more than just words. They offer examples.

Both women grew up in Kennedy Park and attended the study center. Wilson helped Mohamud with her college applications; she graduated in 2009 with a degree in psychology from Bard College in upstate New York. She wanted to take time off before graduate school and took the coordinator position.

The kids ask her questions about college, what it’s like. She uses every opportunity to get them to consider higher education, Mohamud said.

“I just try to inspire them. (I say) ‘You can do it – I did it. I’m from the same neighborhood as you,’ ” Mohamud said.

Achiro graduated from Portland High School last year and is now looking at colleges, considering pursuing a degree in business or social work. She wanted to work at the study center to give back to her community, she said, and to make sure the kids in her neighborhood take pride in their community and themselves.

“I just want them to be something, feel like they grew up in a safe place,” said Achiro. “This is, like, their home. Kennedy Park is an amazing place.”

That mentoring component is important, said Wilson. The centers also use volunteers from the community, and Bowdoin College students help out, too.

Originally funded through federal grants, the centers are now funded through the housing authority’s operating budget. Space is donated by the authority. The centers are in the housing developments, so students can easily walk back and forth, and parents can check in whenever they want.

The authority budgets about $50,000 a year to staff the three centers with AmeriCorps volunteers.

The success of the centers is largely anecdotal, with no formal tracking of grades – largely because of confidentiality rules at the schools, Wilson said. Until recently, the housing authority was able to track dropout rates for students who live in public housing.

In the 1993-1994 school year, Portland Housing Authority students had a 15 percent dropout rate, compared with an 8 percent rate in the general student body. In 2003-2004, that figure was 11 percent for Portland Housing Authority residents and 9 percent for the general population, according to data supplied by Wilson.

Wilson and Wynn Stewart, an AmeriCorps volunteer who helps coordinate the work in the centers, said more funding might allow more kids to be helped. In particular, there’s a need for specialized tutors to help some of the older students.

Wilson said he knows kids who have used the study centers and gone on to become doctors or get government jobs after college. One student, he said, is working as a translator in Afghanistan for the U.S. government.

Today, Michael Hale is the school counselor at Casco Bay High School in Portland. In the mid-1990s, he worked as a coordinator at the Riverton Park study center.

“I was looking for a part-time job that would get me working directly with kids who I believed needed the most help – kids that don’t necessarily have access to some of the amenities other kids have,” said Hale. “It was one of the most rewarding jobs I ever had.”

 

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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