|Minnesota's First Model Center Lives Up to Its Name|
St. Paul, MN – "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..." These are the words emblazoned on the pedestal of the famous Statue of Liberty. Since 1886, Lady Liberty has stood in New York Harbor serving as a symbol of hope for a countless number of immigrants who come to the United States to find prosperity and a better life.
More than 1,000 miles away in the heart of the Midwest, residents of the Liberty Plaza housing community who are new to the United States are discovering another source of hope that is helping them build a better life, the Liberty Plaza Resource Center.
Challenges of the Midwestern Melting Pot
Serving a large number of immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Antigua, and Vietnam, among other countries, the Liberty Plaza Resource Center faces some unique educational challenges, particularly among children and youth. First and foremost, young immigrants often struggle academically because they have a limited ability to speak, read, and write English. According to the 2009 State of Students of Color report published by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, Inc., Minnesota faces a gap in educational attainment between majority students and immigrant and other children or youth of color. The report also concludes that Minnesota’s new foreign-born residents or young people born in this country to immigrant families speak more than 90 different languages. At the Liberty Plaza Resource Center, the languages of Somali, Hmong, Arabic, Cambodian, French, and Vietnamese are frequently spoken by center users.
The students' language barrier is compounded because many immigrant parents have difficulty communicating with teachers and school administrators about homework. Because of this, they are unable to serve as effective advocates for their children and determine what additional academic help is needed and available. Immigrant parents with limited English-language skills also are unable to offer the students a great deal of homework assistance at home.
Overcoming the Barriers
The staff of the Liberty Plaza Resource Center is not deterred by these challenges. Instead, they have created programs that support English Language Learners (ELL) from kindergarten through middle school to prepare them for high school. According to Mary Crowley, manager of program development, the center also offers several programs and services for adults, including English language classes, employment assistance, computer lab access, and tax preparation. However, the academic enrichment programming for children and youth is the starting point for many young people to develop greater self-esteem and life-coping skills.
"One of the most valuable steps we have taken at the center is recognizing that families need more to succeed than just stable housing,” said Crowley. "They need programs that will help them integrate into and succeed in American society. For us, we discovered that one way to help residents achieve greater educational success was to partner with educational institutions."
From Campus to Community
To help students in grades K-5 achieve greater academic success, the Liberty Plaza Resource Center and Concordia University St. Paul created PLUS (Playful Learning with University Students) Time, an afterschool academic enrichment program that serves between 100 to 200 children per year. For PLUS Time, students from Concordia University majoring in education provide one-on-one and group tutoring, and the positive results are evident.
"Muhammad, who spoke no English, recently moved to Liberty Plaza with his family," explained Crowley. "Within a few weeks, his English blossomed. We thought that perhaps he was in a special school program for ELL students. However, we later discovered that the extra support he received through PLUS Time greatly contributed to the English skills he acquired so quickly."
Crowley tells of another student who attended PLUS Time, as well as Youth-VOICE (Vision, Opportunity, Interaction, Community, Empowerment). This center program for students in grades 6-8 combines academic enrichment, relationship building, and community service. Hamline University students help youth improve academic proficiencies, bolster self-esteem, and foster a commitment to community service.
After participating in Youth-VOICE, a young man moved on to the center's multi-faceted leadership/personal development program for junior and senior high school students that pairs older youth mentors with younger students. The young man bonded with the student volunteers from Hamline University, graduated from high school, applied to the college, and was accepted. He now volunteers with Youth-VOICE so he can give back to the community that supported him throughout school.
Crowley also told of another youth who moved away from Liberty Plaza, but returns to the center to participate in Youth-VOICE because he feels the program provides him with a beneficial and stabilizing influence.
While the students of the Liberty Plaza Resource Center appear to reap the most rewards of center programs, Crowley explains that the college students who volunteer find the experience equally rewarding. "The college students say they get as much out of the program as they give to the children," said Crowley. "These student volunteers can be at the center from one to four years, depending on where they are in their academic career and when they began volunteering at the center. As a volunteer, the college students learn about different cultures and how to solve issues that arise for people who speak a myriad of languages. The children and youth are introduced to U.S. culture and English in a user-friendly environment, and the future teachers get a valuable and rich pre-classroom experience."
In addition to partnering with local institutions of higher education, the Liberty Plaza Resource Center is also a member of the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation’s Tutoring Partnership for Academic Excellence that works to ensure high-quality, consistent tutoring for students in St. Paul Public Schools. To track and evaluate the effectiveness of its programs, the Liberty Plaza Resource Center partners with the St. Paul Public School system to follow students’ learning success.
“Our educational partnerships keep us a step ahead of the challenges that come with bridging the language and academic gap between where our children and youth start and where they need to go to succeed,” said Crowley. “We work to make certain our families, especially our children and youth, have the best possible chance to take advantage of the opportunities to become self-sufficient in their adopted country.”
For more information about Neighborhood Networks centers in Minnesota, contact:
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Minneapolis Multifamily Hub
Kinnard Financial Center
920 Second Avenue South, Suite 1300
Minneapolis, MN 55402
(612) 370-3051 x2276
For more information on the Liberty Plaza Resource Center, contact:
Liberty Plaza Resource Center
290 Arundel Street
St. Paul, MN 55103
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Department of Housing and Urban
451 7th Street S.W.,
Washington, DC 20410
708-1112 TTY: (202)