The Learning Community officially opens its newly renovated South Omaha learning center today.
The 7,000-square-foot building provides triple the classroom space for teaching adult immigrants the skills they need to help their children succeed in school.
With its simple exterior, original brick walls and bright, airy interior, the building gives the Learning Community a long-term presence in the commercial and cultural heart of Omaha's Latino community.
The library building had long been eyed by Learning Community Council members for its central location in the low-income, immigrant-rich neighborhoods of South Omaha.
The council entered into a 10-year, $1.12 million lease agreement with the HELP Foundation of Omaha, which is the landlord.
Base rent and building operating expenses start at $8,543 a month, rising to $10,209 a month in the 10th year. The council has an option to negotiate five-year lease extensions.
Under the lease, the Learning Community contributed $550,000 toward the interior renovations, and the HELP Foundation paid $200,000 for mechanical, plumbing and exterior improvements.
The Learning Community has a contract with OneWorld Community Health Centers to run the center for $850,000 a year.
Located in a former city library building, the center has three main classrooms where teachers provide free “family literacy” classes to low-income parents. The classes teach English language and parenting skills aimed at making parents more effective teachers and advocates for their children.
The parents must have children age 4 to 7 attending public school in South Omaha or north Bellevue.
The intense approach seems to be working, said Ted Stilwill, executive director of the Learning Community.
“If we've got this up and rolling, and it's successful, which it initially seems to be, then what can we learn from this to take to north Omaha? What can we learn because there are not only large Hispanic populations but increasing multilingual populations not just in OPS but in other districts,” Stilwill said.
Prior to the center's opening, the Learning Community had operated a center temporarily in the Juan Diego building at 33rd and Q Streets.
The new center serves 170 families with more than 300 children, officials say.
Families used to visiting the old location were “in awe” of the new building, said Anne O'Hara, the center's program director.
“The families can tell there's been a big investment in them and their children, and they're so grateful,” O'Hara said.
In one classroom Tuesday, teacher Joey Mollner presided over a class of 16 parents in a lesson about goals.
Mollner said he taught Spanish at Gross High School and spent two years in the Peace Corps teaching English to adults in Ecuador.
He said the most common question from South Omaha parents is: How can they learn English in a timely manner to help their children in school?
They also want to know about games and activities that they can share with their children.
The center's teachers want to give parents confidence to talk face to face with teachers, he said. At parent-teacher conferences, the language barrier can frustrate both sides, he said.
“Some of the teachers are as nervous as they are with the language barrier,” he said.
Maria Garcia, who grew up in Guadalajara, Mexico, enrolled in the center's classes after hearing about them through her children's school. Her 11-year-old daughter, Clara, and 4-year-old son, Francisco, attend Ashland Park-Robbins Elementary School.
Garcia said her parents never read to her as a child. As a teenager she had eight younger brothers and had to drop out of school to get a job and help support her family, she said.
She said classes at the center help her to read and understand her children's homework, write messages for teachers and communicate at parent-teacher conferences.
“For everything, it's good for me,” she said.
While she attends classes, her 2-year-old daughter, Dharma, can play with toys and books in a child care room in the building. The center has a small outdoor play area as well.
By law, the Learning Community Council is required to establish at least one elementary learning center for every 25 elementary schools that have substantial numbers of students living in poverty. The law says centers may provide a variety of services, including extended-school-day programs, literacy instruction, computer labs, tutors, mentors, health and mental health programs, interpreters, and English language classes for parents and family members.
Council members determined that the South Omaha center should focus on the language barrier.