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LearnLinks Program focuses on academic achievement


A LearnLinks student proudly displays the wooden candy dispenser she made during Homework Club.
A young LearnLinks participant learns what it is like to graduate and celebrate her success.
Immigrant, refugee and very low-income children growing up in some of the poorest neighborhoods in east Portland face a long list of challenges that threaten their success in school and, ultimately, in life. One of the biggest threats is housing instability - not knowing how long a given housing situation will last or whether housing is even available.

Human Solutions eliminates housing instability for many families by providing affordable, safe places for low-income families to live. Although affordable housing is a basic need and plays a vital role in stabilizing very low-income families, housing alone is not enough to ensure children in these families receive the support they need to reach their full potential and break the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

Human Solutions runs a program called Learn Links that tackles some of the significant barriers these low-income children face, such as lack of individualized academic help, and little or no access to field trips and other enriching experiences outside the public school classroom.

LearnLinks includes parents and classroom teachers in the process of educating each child. It is part of Human Solutions' Resident Services Program, which is available to all residents living at the 16 affordable housing complexes the agency owns and operates in outer east Portland and East Multnomah County.

Human Solutions' properties contain 608 apartments that are home to about 2,000 people. Resident Services provides families with the support they need to maintain their housing, and various opportunities to develop skills that promote self-sufficiency.

This school year, children in kindergarten though 8th grade (ages 5 to 13) are participating in LearnLinks activities at the Lincoln Woods, Park Vista and Arbor Glen housing complexes.

Virtually all of the 59 families at Park Vista are Russian-speaking immigrants and refugees. The 70 families at Lincoln Woods are predominantly refugees from Somalia and countries in the former Soviet Union, while the 96 households at Arbor Glen represent the cultural and ethnic diversity found in Portland.

Last school year, Human Solutions served 164 children in LearnLinks on either a full- or part-time basis. This year, funding for LearnLinks comes entirely from private foundation grants.

LearnLinks boosts academic performance
The primary LearnLinks activity is Homework Club, which takes place after school. Students receive tutoring in academic areas of deficiency and have time to complete classroom assignments. LearnLinks has had a consistent record-- determined through teacher evaluations--of improving the academic success of youth participants. The results of those evaluations for 2011-12 indicated that:
o 90% of the children demonstrated improved academic performance
o 85% increased the frequency with which they completed homework assignments
o 93% maintained or improved school attendance
o 95% showed improved attitude toward school and learning

In addition to Homework Club, a very popular activity was the My Story photography project, according to LearnLinks Program Manager Tonya Parson. She described My Story as a cross-cultural photo dictionary. The Somali and Russian speaking youth took pictures representing idioms, such as “ants in the pants,” “bury the hatchet,” and “I have a broken heart,” all of which are uncommon phrases in their native languages. “The project was part of a larger effort to help youth make sense of elements in the English language that some new learners find difficult,” Parson said.

Family nights prove popular
Family Nights include refreshments and provide time for parents to socialize while their children engage in fun, educational activities. Parson cites one activity in particular that drew families together. During the month of Ramadan last summer, several Muslim youth approached Parson and asked if one of the Family Night activities could be an Iftar, the meal served after sunset when families break the Ramadan fast. The idea was to have a community potluck for everyone, with Muslim families bringing a dish to share and inviting the entire community to share in the meal and prayers. With the suggestion enthusiastically received, preparations began in earnest. Several youth went shopping for supplies, while explaining to Parson the foods and customs of Ramadan. Based on the budget they had, youth also calculated the math to feed 100 guests.

Partnering with the David Douglas School District
Parson said the LearnLinks Program has created a successful partnership between Human Solutions and the David Douglas School District, where children from the Lincoln Woods and Park Vista apartments attend school. The district serves a large population of low-income students; eighty percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, according to the district's website, and children attending the district's 14 schools speak more than 65 different languages. Teachers and administrators in the district have embraced LearnLinks' extra academic support and focus on parent engagement, Parson said.

By providing a bridge between home and school, the program has fostered greater student achievement, increased parent participation in the academic lives of their children, and has contributed to the overall stability of the families. LearnLinks teaches parents the importance of being their child's first teacher, Parson said, and helps them understand the intricacies of the American educational system. Parent-teacher conferences have taken place onsite at the apartment complex rather than at school to help build trust between parents and teachers, and make conferences more convenient for working parents.

Classroom teachers play an important role in how LearnLinks instruction is tailored to the needs of each child. Teachers' evaluations of participating students help determine program outcomes.

More emphasis on leadership, community service
While academics remain the core focus of LearnLinks, the program kicked off this school year with stronger emphasis on building character traits and leadership skills among participants.

The goal is to create lifelong volunteers and encourage altruism among the children. “Stressing the importance of helping others will help their personal growth and allow them to experience the satisfaction of making a difference for someone else,” Parson said.

Older youth chosen as community leaders will learn positive social behaviors while serving as mentors to younger counterparts. Student-driven service learning projects will promote leadership and volunteerism. So far, students have been willing to tackle serious issues like smoking, and plans are under way to promote health awareness about smoking in March.
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