Community learning center connects the dots for west valley residents

September 6, 2012
Author: Elliot Bueler | The Salt Lake Tribune

Rebecca Tesch knows that in education, it’s easy to play the blame game. So in June, the third-year principal of Granger Elementary opened her school’s doors to a new center to educate the community and increase accountability.

Before partnering with the United Way of Salt Lake, the Salt Lake Community Action Program and the West Valley community to establish Utah’s 26th Community Learning Center, Tesch said it was common to point fingers because people felt isolated in their efforts. Now, she said, the partners know their roles and know they have the support of the other collaborators.

"Each and every person that’s a part of this team partnership for working on a child is absolutely, vitally important, and we’ve been left separated trying to do it on our own," Tesch said.

Granger Elementary – the largest elementary school in the Granite District – is now positioned as a central hub along a "cradle to career" pipeline modeled, in part, after the Harlem Children’s Zone, which gained traction in the early ’90s. With the United Way serving as the backbone to this collaborative effort, the Learning Center approach is attempting to take this early model to scale by engaging community partners in providing medical, financial and educational resources.

The Community Learning Center approach came about precisely because educators and community activists were unable to forge this type of meaningful, productive partnership on their own, organizers said. As a result, Scott McLeod, community collaborations director for the United Way of Salt Lake, said organizations were left to address pressing issues in a very superficial way that wasn’t yielding results.

"The model of spreading money out a mile wide and an inch deep is not a model that is going to work for really, truly, once-and-for-all solving social problems," he said.

Instead, McLeod said, they’ve invested considerable human and financial capital in making inroads in health, income and education. At each center, full-time coordinators connect students, parents and other community members to resources such as early-learning and after-school programs, language and education classes, free tax assistance, free immunizations and health-insurance enrollment.

Sarra McGillis, a member of the Salt Lake Community Action Program’s board of trustees who has two children who attend Granger, said the Community Learning Center has been a tremendous resource for those seeking to better themselves.

"It’s there to help us help ourselves with learning, actual learning," McGillis said. "Knowledge is the key, and that will bring everybody up. The only way you can really move up is if you have the knowledge that you need to compete in the world."

Even though this new Community Learning Center is still being rolled out, and everyone is trying to familiarize themselves with this new partnership, Tesch said she’s already seen a change in attitude among her students, teachers and parents. Students are more excited to be in school, teachers feel freed up to focus on teaching and parents seem more willing to work with the school.

"I see it as a beautiful symphony that will have all the parts working, and there will be a great harmony there with all of that working together in a way that really benefits everyone," Tesch said.