|The following is
from 1977. It appeared in a small magazine called
"Exchange," a journal published by the Sinsinawa Domincans,
an order of Catholic sisters who minister to the
sick, the poor, and the oppressed.
Money given to a poor person will be gone after the next month's rent; clothes given to a poor person's children will soon wear out, but the education a person gains will be his forever. Sinsinawa sisters in Washington, D.C., are offering education to the inner-city poor through the Sacred Heart Adult Education Center, a school primarily for adults preparing to test for the high-school equivalency certificate.
The Center began in 1969 with evening classes. It has over 350 students and 45 teachers, yet it operates on an annual budget of less than $10,000. Although the teachers are volunteers, all have bachelor's degrees; several have master's degrees, and three have doctorates.
Sister Mary Alice Neylon, school principal, has the task of recruiting the volunteers. "It causes incipient ulcers at the beginning of each term," she jokes. "I'm always worried about getting enough teachers, and some semesters there have been problems finding them. My biggest problem has been finding daytime teachers. I don't know how the daytime classes would go on if we didn't have the sisters."
Ten sisters are teaching during the fall semester; four are Sinsinawa Dominicans.
The Center offers classes year-round in basic and developmental reading and math, English as a second language, high-school equivalency preparation, typing, sewing, and basic conversational Spanish. Classes average from 10 to 12 students. Most students hope to take the General Educational Development (GED) test. About 60 students pass the test each year, according to Sister Mary Alice.
Over half the students are foreign born. They come from more than 40 countries, including all Central American countries, 12 African nations, eight islands in the West Indies, Pakistan, Portugal, the Philippines, South American nations, India, Ceylon, Jordan, and Iran. Of the foreign-born students, some are wives of university students. Many have come to the country to work as domestics for diplomats, and some have immigrated to this country with the intention of remaining.
Most of the students are employed, according to Sister Mary Alice. "Most have positive images of themselves and feel they're coming up in the world." Many students are nurse's aides who hope to become licensed practical nurses. Most say their main purpose in attending classes is to qualify for a better job or to meet admission requirements for advanced education.
Center students work as cooks, day workers, telephone operators, clerks, sales people, cashiers, mothers, hairdressers, laundresses, plumbers, gardeners, stone cutters, janitors, taxi drivers, mechanics, baby sitters, waitresses, and maids. Most evening students come to school after putting in a full day's work, and several day students arrive after working through the night.
The average student age is 34, but there is no average student. Center students include a 16-year-old who left high school to have her baby, a disabled veteran of World War II, a disabled veteran of the Viet Nam war, a young man recently released from prison, a woman who suffered brain damage in an automobile accident, a retired Navy man, a woman who was beaten as child when she did not learn quickly, a woman who is the niece of an African ambassador, and a man from Niger who did his basic learning in Arabic.
Sister Mary Alice recruits the students by posting notices throughout the neighborhood and by mailing letters to students from previous semesters. There is never a shortage of students.
The Center attracts most of its teachers through announcements in church bulletins, but volunteers have also come from ACTION, an organization for former Peace Corps and VISTA workers, and from the community at large.
Volunteer teachers include a high-school teacher, a physical chemist, a seminarian, a librarian, an archivist, a policeman, a legislative analyst, a physicist who troubleshoots on nuclear reactors, a technical editor, a primary grade teacher, an Army lieutenant, a man with a doctorate in remedial reading, a director of a Montessori school, a former high-school math teacher, two candidates for doctoral degrees in philosophy, and a graduate student in classical studies.
One volunteer has taught math at the Center for seven years. It's a nostalgic experience for him because he attended grammar school in the same building. He was recruited to teach by his wife, another volunteer.
There's an English teacher from Sierra Leone. He came to this country as a student after being headmaster at a school in his hometown. He now has a master's degree in history and is completing a doctoral dissertation as he teaches as a community college.
One of the volunteer reading teachers spends her life in community service. She also volunteers as a tour guide at the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of History and Technology. She takes her volunteer work seriously and seeks outside materials to help individual students. She says she is happy to help the Sacred Heart students because her own parents did not have the opportunity to go beyond grammar school. She was the only one in her family to go to college and graduate school. "Some of my own family members have dropped out of high school, and I can see the problems they've had."
New to the Center last spring is a tax form preparation service offered by a team of volunteers. The volunteer who organized the service taught in past semesters, but offers the new service to help Center students who often are confused by tax forms but cannot afford to pay for professional preparation.
Like any school, Sacred Heart Adult Education Center has its extra-curricular side. Each April students plan and host a dress-up dance that nets about $1,000 for the school's operating budget. The school also has graduation ceremonies in May when students are awarded progress certificates.
Most students are at the Center for at least a year before trying to pass the GED test although a few pass the test after a semester of preparation. Some who come with a language barrier will be at the school for two or three years.
The Center is one of eight adult education centers in the Washington, DC, area under the direction of the Office of Social Development of the Archdiocese of Washington. In 1967 Cardinal O'Boyle requested a study by a group of sisters to see how the needs in Washington could best be served. Five sisters, each from a different religious order, lived together in the midst of one of D.C.'s poor neighborhoods. The sisters decided the best service that could be rendered was education. The Sacred Heart Center was the first GED-preparation center established by the Archdiocese of Washington.
Alice's interesting live folks
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