As a single mother living in poverty in a city known for its weak record of educating students of color, Kanesha Wingo realized her odds of finding success were slim. But with help from a learning center in her apartment complex, Wingo completed her college education, creating a foundation for herself and young daughter.
Wingo, 28, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, sociology and religious studies from Alverno College in 2013 and recently earned a master’s degree in business administration from Cardinal Stritch University. Wingo earned both degrees from the Milwaukee schools with the help of scholarships through the community learning center.
Wingo said she believes education is the key to avoiding “that stereotype, that statistic that I was kind of born into” — a young black woman living in low-income housing.
Experts say centers like the one at the neighboring Greentree and Teutonia apartment complexes in Milwaukee where Wingo lived offer a promising method, developed over the past two decades, of shrinking academic achievement gaps.
The challenge is daunting: As reported in the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism Children Left Behind series in December, Wisconsin has the largest disparity between the performance of black and white students in the country, the worst graduation rate for black students and the nation’s highest suspension rate for black students.
Greentree and Teutonia are two of six low-income housing sites run by Carmen Porco, an executive at the nonprofit Housing Ministries of American Baptists in Wisconsin. These properties, in addition to Northport Apartments and Packer Townhouses in Madison, are available through the national rental assistance program, commonly known as Section 8.
Under this housing voucher program, rent is based on ability to pay. This ensures residents can still afford monthly payments, even if they have been laid off, take a job with lower pay or have to cut work hours.
The group’s properties provide numerous services to the low-income residents, including child care, family literacy classes and after-school tutoring for residents of all ages. College scholarships for up to $1,500 each semester are also provided through the sites.
Funding for the programming and scholarships is generated on site from tenants’ rent, Porco said. The Northport learning center costs $237,000 and the center at Packer is $284,000 to run per year, which includes funding the scholarship program and staff payroll. The learning center shared by Greentree and Teutonia in Milwaukee costs close to $243,000 to operate, he said. About 670 students between ages 3 and 18 live at the six Madison and Milwaukee properties.
By providing learning centers, social services and jobs for residents like Wingo, who now works as the Greentree-Teutonia leasing agent, low-income housing sites in Madison and Milwaukee are working to break the link between poverty and poor academic performance.
Living at Greentree-Teutonia helped Wingo work part time, finish school and be a mom.
“Coming to the center really helped me a lot,” Wingo said. “Education helps you gain skills, and it takes you places you probably wouldn’t (go) on your own.”
The number of poor Wisconsin students, measured by those who qualify for free or reduced-price meals at school, has risen significantly over the past decade, from 30 percent in 2005-06 to 42 percent in 2014-15. In Madison, 48 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged; in Milwaukee the figure is 83 percent.
“It takes an entire learning experience to move the needle,” said Alison Wineberg, an education consultant with the state Department of Public Instruction who oversees the 21st Century Community Learning Center grants. This federally funded program — totaling $16.7 million in 2013-14 — supports after-school, before-school and summer school programs in schools and community-based organizations that serve a high number of students from poor families.
In all, 42,417 Wisconsin students participated in such community learning programs in 2013-14, and a little over half were regular attendees. The latest report shows 73 percent of participants improved their school performance after participating in programs at the roughly 220 sites and also had better attendance and fewer behavior problems.
Wineberg said community learning centers are not the only solution to the achievement gap, but they do improve some students’ academic outcomes.
Unlike the properties managed by Porco, however, other community learning centers are within schools and not as conveniently located for students and parents. By placing the centers within low-income apartments, these centers ease one of the biggest barriers: access.
University of California-Irvine education researcher Deborah Lowe Vandell found in 2013 that low-income children are less likely to have access to after-school enrichment programs than students from higher-income families. When elementary students consistently participate in such programs, her research found, achievement gaps in math between low-income and high-income students narrow.
Porco, whose centers do not receive federal educational funding, said he has seen students living in stable housing with access to education resources outside of school thrive.
“Education,” Porco said, “cannot just occur in the public schools.”
‘Home away from home’
Ien Roder-Guzman, 24, describes the learning center in the apartment complex where he lived as a “home away from home”: “They kept me grounded and kept my head focused on future stuff.”
Roder-Guzman grew up at the Packer Townhouses on Madison’s North Side and began going to the community learning center when he was 5. Despite moving around Madison and attending several schools, Roder-Guzman kept coming back to the learning center — even when he was not living in the neighborhood. He now works at the learning center three days a week.
“Just family. The family feeling, you know?” he said, explaining why he kept returning to Packer. “I came here feeling at home, pretty much.”
Roder-Guzman graduated from Madison College in December with a two-year liberal arts degree that will help him transfer to a University of Wisconsin System school. He is also considering joining the military.
He said the learning center became a “main support system” for him while in school.
“You keep coming back here, and it’s like they’re going to help you no matter what,” Roder-Guzman said.
Anecdotal evidence for learning centers
Data on Porco’s learning centers are limited. But what is available indicates students who are participating in the on-site educational programs are succeeding, said Charles Taylor, an education professor at Madison’s Edgewood College.
Taylor gathered data from students in Porco’s housing units and compared them to Madison and Milwaukee students overall. Although the sample size of 68 students was small, Taylor found that students living in the stable, low-income housing complexes exceeded their peers in each city.
As of October, Taylor and Margaret Porco, an assistant to her father Carmen, estimated the grade-point average of current and graduated scholars in the Madison properties who participated in the learning centers averaged 3.2 and scholars in Milwaukee averaged 3.3 on a scale of 4. Figures for comparable students were not available, but Taylor said he is convinced the learning centers are making a difference.
“This is something that I believe is worth celebrating and duplicating,” Taylor said.
Taylor and Margaret Porco also found students living in the housing complexes graduate at higher rates than the district average for all students. From 2010-14, 97 percent of students in the study at the Madison properties graduated, and 100 percent of students in the study at the Milwaukee properties graduated, Taylor found. The four-year graduation rate for all students in the Madison district is 79 percent and Milwaukee’s is 61 percent.
Taylor said he did not compare graduation rates by race or ethnicity between schools and housing units. However, he said it was “clear from every source” that black students living in the complexes graduated at higher rates than their peers in Madison and Milwaukee.
The same trend was true for Latino and Hmong students, Taylor said.
Eric Grodsky, an education researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Porco’s work on Madison’s North Side “sounds amazing,” but without a more rigorous study of the program, it is hard to know the extent of the centers’ effectiveness.
“With a strong evaluation I think their work could benefit hundreds if not thousands of kids,” Grodsky said. “Without that evaluation, it’s a lot harder to get other entities to commit the sorts of resources necessary to do what they have done.”
Scholarships key to college success
Since 2006, the properties in Madison and Milwaukee have given out about $668,000 in scholarship money to more than 115 individuals. Residents pursuing undergraduate or master’s degrees said the scholarship and rent-assisted housing were critical to completing their degrees.
Wanda Melton, 33, who has a 12-year-old daughter, is a school counselor at Northwest Catholic School in Milwaukee. She completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Upper Iowa University in 2010 and earned her master’s degree in school counseling at Mount Mary University in 2014 while she was a resident of Greentree-Teutonia.
While she was completing her counseling degree, Melton said she was required to complete an internship and had to take an unpaid leave of absence from her job. The scholarship and the rental assistance helped her pay the bills.
“I definitely was able to lean on the scholarships,” Melton said.
Jean Knuth, Greentree-Teutonia’s housing manager, said the learning center has turned the complex into a community that meets many needs. There is child care, tutoring for students and a computer lab with resources for job searching and resume writing.
“We can’t fix everybody and we can’t fix all of their children, but we can do something,” Greentree-Teutonia program director Vicki Davidson said. “All they have to do is let us know what they need.”
Poverty and academic struggle linked
Racial achievement gaps closely match racial differences in income, education and unemployment, according to Stanford University professor Sean Reardon’s research for the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.
This holds true for Wisconsin, where the gap between black and white students is the worst in the nation, according to national test results. Wisconsin is also one of the worst states to live if you are black, according to the 2013 Race to Equity report by the nonprofit Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, which exposed deep racial divides in Dane County and across the state.
Reardon concluded that schools can reduce educational disparities but they have not eliminated them. Out-of-school inequalities related to family and neighborhood conditions and resources are likely to blame for large achievements gaps in states like Wisconsin.
“Without more directly reducing these socioeconomic disparities, we are unlikely to be able to fully eliminate inequality in educational outcomes,” he wrote.
That is where Porco’s “anti-poverty” housing model may come in. It is a system that links social services, educational opportunities, stable housing and even job opportunities where people live. Porco began his experiment after taking over several low-income housing sites in 1974 — including Packer and Northport in Madison and Greentree-Teutonia in Milwaukee.
Madison Mayor Paul Soglin praises the beneficial effects of the learning centers on the community. He keeps an analysis of Porco’s program in a computer file called “The Carmen Method.”
“I turn to (the file) on occasion to review what it is you have been doing when I’m at a point where I’m not sure which path to take,” Soglin told Porco at the Northport and Packer scholarship banquet in October.
Porco said he aims to fill a “community gap” by making services readily available rather than waiting for residents to seek them out. “We have to integrate our services to meet the whole person’s needs,” Porco said.
Susan Goetz, an instructor with Madison College, teaches adult basic education and GED classes at Packer and English as a second language at Northport in Madison. She works with adult students who did not make it through high school and are “already at a disadvantage.”
“I try not to let people give up,” said Goetz, who has worked at the learning center for 17 years.
June Johnson, a Northport resident, is among those who did not give up. In 1989, after a divorce, Johnson moved into the low-income apartment complex with her three children. She began working at the learning center eight years later.
Johnson attended but did not graduate from Madison East High School and eventually earned her high school equivalency degree through the learning center.
“(The center is) a great salvation for some people, and I was one of them,” Johnson said.
Unstable housing, poor performance tied
Housing instability is another barrier to school success. When parents move around chasing lower rents or because of life changes, children can be shuttled from school to school. Changing schools and adjusting to new sets of teachers and classmates takes a toll on students’ educational and social progress.
And thousands of Wisconsin students have no permanent home. They may not have quiet places to study or even know where they will fall asleep on a particular night.
In the 2014-15 school year, there were at least 18,000 homeless students across Wisconsin — a number that has more than tripled since 2003-04. Among homeless students across the state, there are 14,294 students who share housing with other families, 333 who have nowhere to live, 2,271 living in a shelter and 1,409 living in a hotel, according to DPI data.
Districts with the greatest number of homeless students in 2014-15 included Milwaukee (3,654), Racine (1,485), Madison (1,380), Green Bay (1,148) and Beloit (653). A 2013 federally funded study on school mobility found such students were more likely to do poorly in school or drop out and have low self-esteem. Subsidized housing and on-site educational programming could help counter those negative outcomes.
Centers can link school, home
Some leaders acknowledge that strong communication between learning centers and school districts can improve students’ achievement levels. And, they say, too often this tie is weak.
“The reason kids don’t perform in schools … (is because the learning center is) just not in relationship with these teachers, we’re not in relationship with this school and that’s what gets in the way,” Packer program director Jacki Thomas said.
Nichelle Nichols, director of family, youth and community engagement for the Madison district, agreed there is often a “disconnect” between neighborhood centers and districts because such programming takes place outside of schools.
Nichols meets quarterly with neighborhood center directors to strengthen the relationship between the district and the learning centers. Laura Whitmore, the district’s community partnerships coordinator, also has created guidelines for tutoring to ensure the community programs mesh with the school curriculum.
“We absolutely can leverage those relationships so the students and families are getting the benefits of better collaboration,” Nichols said.
For her part, Northport program director Pat Wongkit keeps a roster of schools and teachers so she can contact them, for example, if a student fails to bring in homework. She said school officials also sometimes call her when students show up late for school.
Karen Herrera, an eighth-grade English teacher at Black Hawk Middle School in Madison, said students who attend the learning centers have better study and organizational skills and “seem to mature a little bit faster.”
“They’re more about school by the time they get to eighth grade or high school,” said Herrera, whose school’s attendance area includes community centers in the Northport, Packer, Kennedy Heights and Vera Court neighborhoods.
Josie Looper, an eighth-grader at Black Hawk, lives in Kennedy Heights and attended the learning center regularly when she was younger. Now she works there, helping elementary students with their homework.
She said Jaimie Schlicher, a middle school program coordinator at the community center, cares about her.
“She’s like another big sister, and we have the same birthday,” Looper said. “I’ve known her since I was in fifth grade, so she knows me and my family really well.”
Stability allows people such as Martinus Roper to form crucial bonds with struggling students. Roper is the assistant program director at Milwaukee’s Greentree-Teutonia community center who is especially passionate about engaging high school students. Roper, called “Mr. M” by the students, recently earned an associate degree in business management through Cardinal Stritch University classes at the learning center.
Roper, who grew up in the Greentree-Teutonia complex, said he can identify with many of the students. He grew up without a father and understands the importance of having a consistent adult presence in a child’s life.
“I kind of take that role of a dad, big brother, uncle, whatever you need me to be in that moment, because I know how much that means, especially going through that as a child,” Roper said.
Packer program director Jacki Thomas has seen generations of students grow up on the property and in the learning center. Her involvement at the center allows her to form important bonds that help students succeed.
“People need to feel known,” Thomas said. “No gaps in education are ever going to change without relationship.”
Eileen Guzman agreed. She said the Packer community center became a “pseudo-parent” to her son, Ien, who spent many hours in and around the center, safe under the watchful eyes of neighbors.
Guzman said she can see a direct relationship between the learning center and success.
If the learning center was not available, Guzman said, “we would have lost a lot of kids.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.