BRONX, N.Y.—There’s only one thing standing in the way of Laura Mejia and her high school diploma – an English class. Thanks to Fordham University’s 21st Century Community Learning Center (CLC), the 17-year-old from the Bronx is very close to clearing that hurdle.

Thomas Lloyd, a rising junior in the College of Business Administration and Fordham student athlete, volunteers at the center. Here, he helps Laura Mejia with English 12. Photo by Gina Vergel

“I’m going to pass English 12 – I know it,” Mejia said with a smile and conviction on a recent July afternoon from the Fordham Road-based center, which recently began its third year in operation.

Mejia is one of the nearly 1,000 kids to have worked toward earning high school credits at the RETC 21st Century Community Learning Center (CLC), which offers online classes to help students who are behind in credits catch up in order to graduate. Credits are earned using software from PLATO Learning, an Illinois-based firm that specializes in educational learning products. The software is aligned with New York State Standards and allows students to complete lessons, take tests and then move to the next level at their own pace.

Launched in September 2008 by Fordham’s RETC-Center for Professional Development, CLC operates after school and throughout the summer. During the 2009-2010 school year, 515 high school credits were earned through the 21st Center for Community Learning.

“We’ve had a real significant impact,” said Leah Tillman, Ph.D., director of the CLC. “In June, I attended the graduation for West Bronx Academy for the Future—a very small high school. Out of 41 graduates, 20 were in our program. And out of Jane Addams graduating class of roughly 225 seniors, 20 percent went through our program.”

Students learn about the center through guidance counselors, word of mouth or even Google, Tillman said. “We now have a list of about 35 students who are waiting to get into the program.”

Tillman credits the center’s success to its comprehensive approach: in addition to credit recovery in math, English Language Arts and other subjects, the program includes:

•    mentoring by undergraduate students of Fordham University, who have been screened and trained to work with student participants;
•    participation in University and cultural events on campus; and,
•    technology training for parents. (Parental involvement is required in most cases.)

Ron Jacobson, Ph.D., an associate vice president for academic affairs who works in a supervisory and cooperative role with RETC, said the CLC is actively bettering the lives of members of the Bronx community.

“I am proud Fordham is able to share its expertise to assist by enabling students to catch up and by empowering them to envision future learning opportunities,” he said.

The center was launched in 2008 thanks to a $2.4 million grant awarded to Fordham’s RETC from the New York State Department of Education. The funds allowed for the hiring of licensed New York City teachers who work part-time and serve as a resource for students. Two high school graduates—and CLC alums—were also brought on part-time to assist with clerical duties.

A handful of Fordham undergraduates work as tutors, while others, such as Fordham Football player Thomas Lloyd, serve as volunteer mentors.

“I like giving back to the community. You just feel good when you do it,” said Lloyd, a rising junior in the College of Business Administration. “I can relate to the kids. I grew up in New Orleans, La., but as a minority, we have similar backgrounds, and we talk about family life and everyday things. I try to motivate them and tell them that if they work for it, they can succeed. And I’ve already seen numerous success stories.”

Students regularly visit the Fordham campus with their mentors to eat meals provided by Sodexho in the cafeteria. It’s just another way for students to get more accustomed to the idea of life beyond high school.

Teresa Lupo, a senior professional developer with the RETC, works closely with the teachers and students in the program. This past spring, she developed a college preparatory leadership club for about 12 students in the program who are college bound but unfamiliar with what to expect as a college student.

“Undergraduate students involved with various Fordham clubs introduce these students to various aspects of college life, such as money saving and budgeting tips, dorm life and studying habits,” Lupo said. “It’s especially helpful for our students, one of whom will be stepping off a train and onto a college campus this fall—a campus he hasn’t even visited.”

The RETC’s overarching mission has always been to provide access to technology to historically underserved populations, said Steven D’Agustino, Ph.D. director of the RETC.

“In our first year, it was very transactional, students did the work and got their credits,” he said. “In year two, we realized we needed to look at the social and emotional aspects of the students and we did that with our mentors, our programming, our teachers and more. It’s been a strong part of their success.”