Hampden's Learning Circus Fills Education Gaps

by Alice Cherbonnier
       WHAT HAPPENS when a teenager, poorly prepared for the transition, tires of struggling and drops out of school?

       How about the young teen whose single-parent mother locks her out of their apartment until midnight, fearing the girl will get into trouble with peers if she's home alone while the mother supports them as a barmaid?

“Kids who beat the odds in their community usually have someone outside the family to turn to.”

       What about the 15-year-old buy who's gotten hooked on the pure heroin that's readily obtainable in the community? The 14-year-old girl who's regularly physically abused? or the one who's pregnant?

       Anne Sledge, who worked with younger children at the Hampden Family Center, realized there was very little available in the community for these young people once they reached age 12. Putting her concerns into action, over two years ago she founded the Learning Circus for youth ages 13 and up.

       Located in the basement of a church at 1234 West 36th Street, across the street from the Roosevelt Recreation Center and adjacent to Robert Poole Middle School, the Learning Circus is well utilizedăand cramped in space.

       At an open house on November 29, the staff and board of the Learning Circus held an open house to acquaint the community with its programs and explain its need for more funding and volunteers.

       Rosalie Streett, a board member, told how she taught at Robert Poole nearly 40 years ago, "and there are no more services for youth in this community now than there were then." Yet she pointed out that the need for reaching out to teens is even greater now than it was then, as the area's economic circumstances have changed. "Once there were more jobs here," she pointed out. "You could work for Stieff [Silver] or the dairy [on 41st Street]."

       Anne Sledge, who serves as the program director, said an alternative approach to education is needed for youth who aren't succeeding in the usual way. "One size fits all just isn't going to work," she said. "Right under our noses there's such incredible need. We have to package learning differently. It's experiential, hands-on, meaningful. We listen to them, find their strengths, and build on those strengths." Music and art are strong components of the program.

       The Learning Circus, due to space and funding limitations, focuses on offering services to youth who are legally supposed to be in schoolăbut, for various reasons, aren't. Legally registered as an education site, it offers four hours of instruction daily, often one-on-one. The staffăincluding three teachers, a life skills educator/pediatric nurse practitioner, and a community liaison outreach coordinator in addition to administratorsăis supplemented by daily visits by volunteer tutors from Goucher College and a cohort of dedicated volunteers.

       "So many of the kids are turned off by [traditional] school, and our social agencies are unable to serve them," explained Karen Henoch-Ryugo, the Learning Circus's executive director.

       Because of its unconventional approach, the Learning Circus sees itself as unlikely to receive government funding. "We're not a 'hot spot' on the charts," explained Ms. Sledge. "Other areas are more impacted [with problems]. And our program is not 'one-size-fits-all,' so it would be hard to regulate. We're not traditional, and not an 'alternative' education program. We're sort of like a pit stop. We get them up and running again, and move them back into the system."

       Since January, the Learning Circus has been a second home to 85 teens, about 25 a day at any given time. The need has proven great, and there's now a waiting list. The large vacant portable classroom that sits on the Robert Poole field, right next to their current location, is being eyed as a possible expansion site if the City would agree.

       Sue Fisher, community liaison and Hampden business owner, told the audience, "This has been needed in this community for years. This gives [the youth] a base. Let's not focus on the jailsălet's help our kids become productive adults."

       The staff of the Learning Circus provided the results of a demographic study of the youth who have participated in the program over the past year. Of the total of 85 youth, 40 were male and 45 female; 67 were Euro-American, 13 Afro-American, and 5 multi-ethnic. Of those aware of their parents' educational level, 21 had no parent who completed high school; 9 had one parent who graduated from high school; none had 2 parents being high school graduates; 1 had a parent who went to college; and 1 had both parents who went to college.

       Fifteen of the youth lived in single-parent homes; 21 lived with 2 parents; 9 lived with 2 adults; 17 listed "other," and the circumstances of 23 were unknown. Thirty-five of the youth reported hard drug use by adults in the home (including heroin, cocaine, prescription drug abuse, and "Ecstasy"); 6 reported adults using marijuana; and 10 cited adult alcohol problems. The teens themselves mirror these problems, with 23 having involvement with hard drugs, 20 using marijuana, and 6 consuming alcohol. Thirty-four of them have a history of misdemeanor arrests; 43 have been suspended from school, some many times.

       Five of the girls have children of their own; 2 of the boys are fathers; and 4 participants are currently pregnant. Of the 16 girls who completed the Teen Stars Program at the Learning Circusăconducted by Planned Parenthood and Johns Hopkinsă14 have not become pregnant.

       Ms. Henoch-Ryugo points out that "circus" derives from the Latin word for "circle," which "connotes laughter and fun and creativeness." It also has come to mean, for the participants, a place to belong and to find support.

       As Anne Sledge says, "Kids who beat the odds in their community usually have someone outside the family to turn to."

       For more information, to volunteer, or to make a donation to the Learning Circus, call 662-8049.


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This story was published on December 6, 2000.