A new University-run community learning center aims to increase the tech savvy of families in the Bronx while helping students further their educations.

The 21st Century Community Learning Center, which is operated by the RETC—Center for Professional Development, began offering technology classes and more in September.

Fordham College of Business Administration junior Johanna Sanchez helps a student complete a project. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Established through a $2.4 million grant from the New York State Department of Education, the 21st Century Community Learning Center is allowing middle and high school students to recover school credits while training their parents and other area adults in technology skills needed in the workforce. The grant was written by Steven D’Agustino, Ph.D., director of the RETC and Theresa Lupo, senior professional developer.

The program for students takes place during or after school, three times a week, for nine-week cycles.

“This major multi-year grant, one of the largest the University has received, reaffirms Fordham’s commitment to providing relevant educational services to our neighborhood schools and our city,” said Ron Jacobson, Ph.D., associate vice president of academic affairs.

Jacobson, who works in a supervisory and cooperative role with RETC, believes the residual value of the work under the grant is immeasurable.

“It is more than about students doing the work that will allow them to catch up and graduate on time,” he said. “It is not hyperbole to say that this program is also about a commitment to caring, hope and the future quality of life for the individual participants and the community. I am very proud of the RETC for moving in this important direction.”

The program prepares middle and high school students to retake state-mandated Regents examinations that they previously failed. It also helps them earn credits for failed math, English and social studies courses. Credits are recovered 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.

“It’s novel. It’s different. It’s self-paced. It’s interactive,” said Steven D’Agustino, Ph.D., the director for the East Fordham Road-based RETC. “It’s helping kids that, in some cases, are over-aged and under-credited. If I’m 17 and my classmates are 14, then it’s very difficult for me to come to school and to feel positive about my education. The 21st Community Learning Center gives Bronx middle and high school students the opportunity to recover credits, learn technology and establish relationships with undergraduate mentors. It’s my hope that Fordham University, through this new project, will become recognized as a significant resource for technology access in the Bronx.”

Leah Tillman, Ph.D., the interim project director for the learning center, knows a thing or two about the struggle some students face when trying to recover failed credits the traditional way. Tillman has 30 years of experience as a teacher, assistant principal and principal at Bronx schools.

“If you fail a class, you just get it again in the same way. Some students will not learn that way and may be tempted to drop out of school,” Tillman said. “The schools are hungry to have some kind of success for these youngsters.”

Fordham College at Rose Hill junior Katie Schaller tutors a Bronx high school student at the 21st Century Community Center. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

The PLATO software and the 21st Century Learning Center is a new option that provides hope for these students, Tillman said. A pilot program run by the RETC last Marchproved successful.

“It’s a good model,” Tillman said. “It gives them support for when they get discouraged. They’ll not only be recovering credits or preparing for the REGENTS exams, but they’ll be learning skills that can be used in the workforce.”

As to how other community members will be helped, the center offers basic technology courses at no cost for adults.

“We’re giving first preference for the parents of our students, but adults will also be able to participate,” Tillman said. “We already have a bilingual beginner technology class scheduled to begin in October.”

High school students began credit recovery and Regents exam preparation on Sept. 22. They met with teachers from the New York City Department of Education who will serve as part-time teachers at the RETC and Fordham students who will serve as tutors.

Johanna Sanchez, 19, a junior at Fordham’s College of Business Administration (CBA) is a finance and accounting major who wanted to get involved as a volunteer.

“I’m really good at math, so I figured, why not help?” Sanchez said.

Theresa Lupo, professional development specialist at RETC, “CBA has been instrumental in supplying student mentors to provide encouragement and academic support.”

“Twenty student mentors from CBA are currently volunteering in the project,” Lupo said.

Barbara Porco, Ph.D., the academic advisor for Fordham’s Integrated Learning Community and Brian Dunn, the director of Honors Opportunities at CBA, have been working with the RETC to publicize the community service opportunities offered by the new program.

“The response by CBA students has been great,” Porco said. “We’re proud of the large number of students from the Integrated Learning Community who have volunteered to serve in this important project.”

RETC will hold a community conference on Saturday, Oct. 4 that will help to spread the word about the new center. The 2008 Bronx Technology Collaborative Conference will take place from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The keynote speaker will be New York City Council Member Gale R. Brewer, who serves as the head of the City Council’s technology committee and is an advocate for access to technology in underserved communities.

RETC staff and administration, as well as 20 community organizations and Fordham departments, will offer information about job training programs, technology resources, college programs, computer skills and education programs for adults. For more information, see the RETC website.


Gina Vergel is Senior Director of Communications. She oversees the digital news coverage, public relations, and social media for the university. Before joining Fordham in 2007, Gina worked as a reporter for the Home News Tribune, and The Ridgewood News, where she won Society of Professional Journalist (New Jersey chapter) awards for breaking news and feature writing, respectively. She can be reached at [email protected] or (646) 579-9957.