‘Amazing Families': Catholic Charities Runs Programs to Boost Learning

Alyanna Velasquez and Emmanuel Colunga may be only 8 years old, but they've got high hopes. One wants to be a cop, the other a dinosaur detective — a paleontologist.Lofty aspirations are just what Catholic Charities of Dallas wants to see in its after-school, early learning and summer camp initiatives for children. Alyanna, Emmanuel and other children attend programs at the community center on the sprawling grounds of Santa Clara Catholic Church in West Oak Cliff.The mission is to mentally muscle up the children.They “come from really amazing families that are dedicated to their kids,” says Ana Maria Schaller, Catholic Charities program manager for educational services for the Santa Clara Community Center.But during the summer, children can lose up to 25 percent of what they’ve learned in a school year, Schaller said.“The focus of our camp is to prevent that summer slide,” Schaller said.The eight-week summer camp for first-graders to eighth-graders includes breakfast and lunch. Kids study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM components.In one classroom full of royal blue furniture, 7-year-old Abel Hernandez, who sports a stylish mop of black hair, sat at a table reading from a tablet. His name on green paper was tacked on the table by his seat. Abel was engrossed in the plot of The Tot and the Pot.Did he like it?“It’s good,” he said shyly.Parents can make a crucial difference in placing their children on a path to success, says Schaller, who’s bilingual, grew up at the Texas-Mexico border and has a doctorate in early childhood development.That’s why programming includes a dual-generation initiative that teaches immigrant parents English and other skills, while their children are nearby reading or learning about math or science. Some children even get one-on-one tutoring for reading.Educating Dallas children still comes with significant challenges. About 40 percent of the children in these programs read a year or two below grade level, Schaller said.Dallas also has the worst poverty rate of the nation’s 10 biggest cities, at 38 percent, according to a report by the mayor’s task force on poverty.These Catholic Charities education programs are in their fourth year and have received key accreditation from the National Accreditation Commission and the Dallas Afterschool Network, which works with a variety of nonprofits. Catholic Charities of Dallas recently moved its headquarters and most of its programs from northeast Dallas to West Mockingbird Lane near Interstate 35. It has a budget of about $15 million. Services include everything from a food pantry to financial literacy programs to advice through its immigration legal clinic, which is the biggest of its 17 units.But the summer camp is headquartered in a lower-income neighborhood to better serve the needs of the children. About 700 people, from preschoolers to adults, enrolled this year in the different educational initiatives at Santa Clara.On this day at the camp, children peer at their tablets, some checking out a 4D tutorial on dinosaurs. Others focus on a lesson on the human body. As little Alyanna touches the flickering screen, she jumps when a body part changes. Emmanuel looks on, giggling.“So weird,” she squeals in delight.  Continue reading...

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