Special to Reminder Publications
In a nomadic childhood journey from foster home to foster home, Ana Cruz took a detour when it came to her education.
Struggling with math, she dropped out in ninth grade from Springfield Public Schools. When she finally decided to get her high school degree years later, she was told she was tested at a fourth-grade level.
But after one semester in a new adult learning program managed by the Springfield Housing Authority, she nearly aced the graduate equivalency degree test. Now, the 26-year-old mother of a 5-year-old boy is back with a passion to learn and dreams of entering college to study for a pharmaceutical career.
"I wanted to live a different life," Cruz said. "I don't want to be on welfare. I wanted my son to have a better life."
She is not alone. As the summer semester opened recently, Jessica Rivera, Mariann Ortiz, Betzaida Vargas, Francisco Perez and Angela Huguley hit the books in teacher Rosemary Adams' class. Built with a $450,000 grant from the federal department of Housing and Urban Development, the Neighborhood Network Center offers adult education classes run by teachers from the Massachusetts Career Development Institute and a computer center .
Anicia Roman-Texidor, an employment specialist funded through the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, also helps residents find jobs. In her first month here, she helped find at least three jobs for residents, including one from a family that was once homeless.
Nicole Contois, assistant executive director of the agency, said expanding opportunities for residents is a priority for Judge William H. Abrashkin, who took over the reins of the Housing Authority last year. Pam Wells, manager of Resident Services, said some of the 200 children in the adjacent Sullivan Apartments also read twice weekly here with a student volunteer from Elms College.
Grants Coordinator Lidya Rodriguez said the small classroom setting has helped students most of them women to overcome barriers to education. Those barriers are high. Most of the students have not surpassed the 10th grade in educational experience. Of the handful ready to take the GED exam after the first class semester, one in 10 passed and others were a few answers away from success.
In addition to education, the center also helps connect students to a variety of services, including vouchers for day care and training programs for jobs.
Perez, a 24-year-old man who dropped out of school in ninth grade, was here to connect with his dream of becoming a mechanic. "I can't do mechanics unless I'm certified, and I can't get certified unless I have my GED," he said.
With funding for the initial round of classes coming to an end, Springfield Partners for Community Action has committed federal economic stimulus funds to supporting an additional 15 weeks of classes. Center staff are on the lookout for more funding and community collaboration to help more families, Wells said.
The initial grant that funded the center was secured by former Executive Director Elizabeth McCright, who helped right the ship after former top managers were indicted in a massive Springfield corruption probe. Restitution funds from conspirators also went toward the center.
With lives already turned around, Wells said, "It makes sense to keep this going."
And students have special motivation to make it work.
"You just want to do better for your kids," said Rivera, a 25-year-old mother of two girls, ages 5 and 7.
Marie P. Grady is liaison for the LiteracyWorks Program of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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