Land of second chances: Covington puts lifelong education within reach

When Teasa Johnson comes home at the end of the day, she greets a community of neighbors, friends, mentors and teachers whose commitment to her success is surpassed only by her own.

Johnson is a resident at Covington’s new Lincoln Grant Scholar House at 824 Greenup St., which is overseen by the Northern Kentucky Community Action Committee and is one of two living-learning facilities in Northern Kentucky. (The other is located in Newport and operated by the Brighton Center.)

In short, the Scholar House is a home for low-income single parents. But there's much more to it than that.

In 2015, 84 percent of Covington’s low-income adults were single mothers and 80 percent of the city’s lowest income residents were under the age of 18. Scholar House provides a holistic, intentional, live-in support system for these vulnerable residents. It offers stability and comfort for single parents who are actively pursuing a better future for themselves and their children.

The Scholar House is a 45-unit apartment complex on the edge of Covington’s Eastside neighborhood. Residents must have their high school diploma or GED, have at least one child living at home and be enrolled full-time in an academic or training program. They must also maintain a minimum GPA, commit to volunteer service, attend life- and job-skills training workshops and meet regularly with staff for one-on-one mentorship. Residents are coached through things like financial planning, career preparation and household management.

The rules may seem strict, but life at the Scholar House comes with perks, too. There is a playroom and library for kids, computer room for adults, exercise room, outdoor courtyard and patio. The public pool, playground and ball fields are just beyond the back door. There are regularly scheduled enrichment classes and social events so residents can get to know each other. Neighbors care for each other like family.

Built in the 1930s, the facility first served as a K-12 public school for African American students until Kentucky schools were segregated in 1965. Then it housed a community center, where as kids, Covington native Johnson remembers hanging out with friends. Despite being on the National Register of Historic Places, the building sat vacant for years before plans were made for restoration.

Johnson attended Holmes High School, but left to finish her senior year with family elsewhere when she says things at school “started getting rough.” She’s now a nursing student at Gateway Community & Technical College and a single mother to four young children.

When she heard about plans for the Scholar House, Johnson knew it was an opportunity she couldn't pass up. "I thought, 'I’d love to try it. Moving here has been the best thing for me. We have so much help here and a lot of loving people. It’s wonderful.”

The building’s restoration was completed by a private developer with guidance from NKCAC. The original tile hallways, classroom chalkboards, wooden closet doors and restored student lockers all harken back to its heyday as a school — appropriate, given the building's new purpose.

The Scholar House was officially dedicated in April 2017 and is already at full capacity, with 45 adult residents and 86 children. Adults range in age from 19 to 55; only three of the adult residents are men.

Director Shellie Baker says there is a waiting list and staff receive housing inquiries daily.

This housing concept fills a large void for Covington’s low-income families. It’s a place where single parents can find the safety net they need to thrive in a difficult season of life, with many working to make ends meet while educating themselves and caring for their children.

As long as they’re in school full-time, students like Johnson can stay at the Scholar House. Once they graduate, they must move on. Baker plans to send each resident off with the tools necessary to plan and prepare for what comes next, whether it’s further schooling, a career, homeownership or another milestone.

As for Johnson, she still has a few years left in her nursing program. After that, her goal is simple: “Leave school with a great job and start saving money so I can buy a home for me and my kids.”

Making education accessible to all

Attending a major university is a frequent theme in coming-of-age stories, but an expensive school far away from home simply isn’t a possibility for many low-income students.

Fortunately for residents, downtown Covington is home to Gateway's Urban Metro Campus. With additional campuses in Florence and Edgewood, Gateway has a total enrollment of about 4,500 students. Kenton County residents make up the largest percentage of those enrolled, and 45 percent of students are over 25. At only about $150 per credit hour for in-state tuition, it’s an accessible and affordable option for high-quality, post-secondary education.

Gateway president Dr. Fernando Figueroa says the urban campus is a symbol of the school’s commitment to Covington’s diverse population.

“We are committed to our Urban Metro Campus as a place where students and the community can connect with the college and discover their talents, leading to personal and community growth and prosperity,” he says.

The Covington campus houses a variety of services and programs, including computer and information technology, adult education and GED programs and automotive technology.

In Covington, Gateway also operates a Project ASPIRE college retention and support program for first-generation and low-income students, and the Ready to Work program, which connects students to work study opportunities.

In 2016, nearly 2,500 students were enrolled in Gateway’s Workforce Solutions program, which provides education and training in the industries of advanced manufacturing; IT and business; transportation, distribution and logistics (TDL); healthcare and construction.

In 2015, the vast majority of Covington’s low-income residents (62 percent of families; 97 percent of single adults) were either unemployed or underemployed. These workforce development programs help provide affordable education, quick training and competitive wages while funneling skilled workers to some of the region’s largest employers.

For Scholar House residents like Johnson, technical training and workforce development programs also offer a more efficient and affordable path to mobility. As a perk of enrollment, all Gateway students have free access to the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky's bus service at all times, to any destination, making even programs at Gateway's southern campuses accessible for Covington residents.

Poverty, dignity and second chances

Breaking the cycle of generational poverty requires gainful employment, and the easiest road for many is the path of least resistance: graduate from high school; choose a college; prepare for and secure a professional-level career. It sounds simple enough. But for at-risk populations, especially children raised in poverty, one or more of these steps is unattainable. Then, at a certain point, some adults reach the point of helplessness (or hopelessness) in improving their situation.

The Life Learning Center in Covington is a nonprofit agency working to provide a second chance for those struggling with self-sufficiency who are willing to do the work to get back on track. The LLC’s holistic program is the brainchild of local businessman and philanthropist Bill Butler, who, after years of supporting projects that alleviate the symptoms of poverty, personally financed a study into the proven methods for stopping the cycles of generational poverty.

During an intensive 12-week curriculum, LLC candidates walk through the barriers to their success — some personal and some circumstantial — and then learn the life and career skills they missed somewhere along the way. The LLC program addresses all areas of life that affect success — health, emotions, work, spirituality and finances. Part of the program also involves a risk assessment of each participant so staff can connect them to community resources necessary to help them find their footing.

LLC president Alecia Webb-Edgington explains, “When individuals walk through the door, they are living in a storm of life. Oftentimes, they don’t know if they’re going to have a roof over their head. They’re probably one paycheck away from getting evicted. We need to get them stabilized. They can’t sit in a class and learn about life if they’re thinking about being thrown out this afternoon.”

Butler is currently the board chairman for the LLC, but the organization is operated by Webb-Edgington, who came on staff less than a year ago. After a full career in criminal justice and politics, she understands the complexities of poverty and how it impacts life decisions and limits opportunities.

LLC’s curriculum is unmatched, Webb-Edgington says, because it positions each individual as the main player in their own future success. The program provides discipline and direction that many candidates never received when they were children. Fifty percent of LLC’s participants have a criminal history; 70 percent have struggled with substance abuse. The organization’s mix of tough love and and compassion is a game-changer.

“Our job here is to transform people’s lives so they can regain their dignity and get back out there,” Webb-Edgington says, explaining that early intervention is the key to economic self-sufficiency. She had only been on the job a short while when she started to plan for more strategic community outreach.

The LLC is ramping up its relationship with local high schools like Holmes, where more than 64 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, indicating a particularly vulnerable youth demographic. Partnering with local school districts means the LLC can intercept at-risk graduates (or drop-outs) who are interested in enrolling in the program immediately. The LLC helps them navigate the waters of college and other pathways to gainful employment in skilled labor trades.

“Why are we waiting for people to go through 10 years of tragedy before they come through the front door?” Webb-Edgington asks. “We’ve got to do a preemptive strike rather than reactionary.”

The program at the LLC is not for the faint of heart. Webb-Edgington admits many of those who walk in the door for orientation never return or complete the program. But participation is on the rise, and in the first half of 2017, 217 adults have begun the program. This is already almost double the number served last year, and more people show up every month that the 12-week program starts over. Webb-Edgington knows it will take time to see major results.

"There’s no silver bullet to this," she says. "There’s no government program that’s going to fix this. It happens one person at a time.”

The Northern Kentucky Fund of theGreater Cincinnati Foundation is proud to underwrite Soapbox’s On the Ground: Covington series. The Northern Kentucky Fund believes that highlighting the successes and challenges in our community fosters effective dialog and action, creating communities where everyone can thrive. Other On the Ground partners include The Center for Great Neighborhoods, which is working collaboratively toward community transformation with series sponsor Place Matters partners LISC and United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Data and analysis is provided by The Economics Center.
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