Friday, Aug. 5, 2005

New program will pay youths to learn

Will target at-risk students in high school

By WILLIAM C. SINGLETON III
BIRMINGHAM POST-HERALD

One local after-school program is making it profitable to learn.

The Birmingham Urban League will offer an after-school, computer-based learning program to about 30 Parker High School students, paying them for hours spent in the program.

The program will track them for four years from ninth grade until graduation to determine if they've made strides in their education and in becoming good citizens.

"We're looking at students who can really benefit from after-school and homework help," said Elaine Jackson, president and chief executive of the Birmingham Urban League. "The monetary aspect is an incentive."

The program called Quantum Opportunities Program is being financed by the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that offers similar financial-incentive learning and community empowerment programs nationwide.

The program targets at-risk youths, providing them with an education in academics, personal development and community service.

"The program looks at students who are performing in the bottom two-thirds of the class, hoping that they and their parents will see this as an opportunity to help them keep up and improve their grades in school," Jackson said.

That group of students is more likely to drop out of school and continue a downward spiral into poverty and a future without education, program organizers say.

Program facilitators also will track a control group of Parker High School ninth graders not involved in the after-school program.

"They will just be tested periodically during the school year along with the group that's participating in Quantum to see the difference, if there is any," Jackson said.

The Birmingham Urban League is set to accept the program's first class of students Sept. 1, said Risper Mwangi, the league's deputy director of youth services.

Program facilitators will monitor student progress during the course of four years, Mwangi said. Those students have not yet been identified by their schools, Mwangi said.

The Eisenhower Foundation will fund the program with $155,000 annually, Jackson said.

The Birmingham Urban League's office at 1229 Third Ave. N. will be the site of the computer-based learning program.

Participants are required to spend 750 hours a year in the program 250 hours in a computer-based curriculum, 250 hours of personal development and 250 hours of community service. A four-hour day in the program can pay between $5 and $10.

The academic component of the program will use computers to enhance basic academic skills.

The personal development component of the program includes acquiring life and family skills, planning for college or advanced technical or vocational training and job preparation.

Community service projects will include working as volunteers with various local agencies and helping with public events.

Students will be eligible for annual bonuses and matching funds during the program and at its completion, program officials said.

The Eisenhower Foundation will deposit matching funds into a student's opportunity account.

At the end of the four years, a student could have between $3,000 and $4,000 in that account, said Johnnie Gage, chief operating officer for the Eisenhower Foundation.

"The program has built-in bonuses," he said. "We believe with this population of kids ... you need those kinds of incentives to keep them engaged."