By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer
When Suzanne Thornberry lost her husband in June of 1999, the mother of three young boys briefly considered going on welfare.
"Then my son brought home a school newsletter that said I could start college classes at a place called the Urban Learning Center," she recalled. "It said there was no tuition, just a small registration fee. It even said they'd supply a baby sitter and help with transportation. They took away all my excuses for not going to college."
Suzanne Thornberry works on homework with her sons (l-r) Austin, 7, Cody, 8, and Gerald, 11.
(Patrick Reddy photo)
Today, the 37-year-old Bellevue woman is an elementary education major at Northern Kentucky University. The honor roll student eventually hopes to teach first grade and special education.
"I could have wound up on my couch depressed, collecting my welfare check and food stamps," Thornberry said. "Thanks to the Urban Learning Center, I never had to go on welfare. ... They built up my self esteem and gave me the confidence to succeed."
Now in its fifth year, Northern Kentucky's Urban Learning Center has become a success by breaking all the rules. For starters, it was formed when three academic institutions - Northern Kentucky University, Thomas More College and Covington Independent Public Schools - formed an unprecedented partnership with support from the Covington Community Center and the visionary group, Forward Quest. Later, Gateway Community and Technical College and Newport Independent Public Schools joined the partnership.
Forward Quest agreed to cover most of the instructional costs, and U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas, a Boone County Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Southgate Republican, helped get federal grants to pay for books and help the Urban Learning Center grow.
Unlike other institutions of higher learning, the Urban Learning Center allows students to withdraw from a course even after taking the final exam.
"I say to students, 'If you don't pass, we'll withdraw you afterward,' said Meg Winchell, the center's executive director. "That fear of failure is removed."
The Urban Learning Center removes other barriers to postsecondary education by offering classes in urban schools close to public transportation, Winchell said. Free on-site child care also is offered, and students get help in everything from applying for basic aid to accessing resources.
Patricia "Tisha" Gilbert had thought about going to college but was uneasy about getting around a big campus and paying tuition.
Gilbert enrolled in the Urban Learning Center after opening a mailer on the unique institution at work. Since then, she's gotten a promotion at NorthKey Community Care and has started thinking about future careers.
After two accidents left her permanently disabled, Cheryl Rushing put aside her bitterness in 1999 and enrolled in the Urban Learning Center. Today, the published writer is an English major at Thomas More College and she counts herself among the Urban Learning Center's recruiters.
"When I pass out fliers in the mall, people look at me like I'm selling snake oil because it sounds too good to be true," the 56-year-old Florence woman said. "Whoever heard of an independent school system and three colleges all coming together to make something like this happen?"
The Urban Learning Center also removes another key barrier to higher education - lack of self-confidence. Many adults who lack college degrees had negative educational experiences in high school or were told that they weren't college material, Winchell said. Still others had to work to support their family and didn't have the time or money for higher education.
"They give you the self-confidence and the enthusiasm to continue on with what you've started," Thornberry said. "They instilled a love of learning in me. I feel like I owe my future to the Urban Learning Center."
Most weeknights, Thornberry can be found at the kitchen table doing homework with her three sons, ages 7, 8 and 11.
"One of our primary goals is to convey the importance of education not just to our students but to their children," Winchell said. "They see their parents doing homework. They see them struggling sometimes and realize that success doesn't necessarily come easily."
Urban Learning Center statistics
Number of students: 582, up from 32 in 1998.
Student body makeup: 85 percent of enrollees are women; 23 percent are minorities; 51 percent are ages 26 to 44; and 71 percent live in Covington and Newport. Others living in surrounding Northern Kentucky communities.
Expansion: The Urban Learning Center hopes to expand to Bellevue and Dayton in 2004-2005 if funding is available.
Registration: Students can register through Jan. 9 for spring semester. Twenty classes begin on Jan. 12 and run through May 10.
Cost: Students pay a registration fee of $20 per course. Most classes are offered for college credit and are free to eligible students.
Where: Classes are held in the Covington and Newport public schools buildings and at the Kenton County public library in Covington. Free on-site child care is available.
Information: (859) 491-2220.
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