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Comstock Community Center creates learning center to fill need

When Comstock has a need, its community center responds.

That was the story 44 years ago when Comstock Township residents Bill and Charlotte Courter thought the teenagers in the community needed a place to go and created a center called The Fish. The Fish soon became the Comstock Community Center and a supportive go-to place with programs for kids, families and older adults aimed at improving quality of life.

For many years after the center’s formation, Comstock was a thriving community. With a General Motors plant and more than 30 plant growers within its borders, the small township east of Kalamazoo had a strong school system and was a tight-knit, mostly middle-class community. The Community Center thrived as well, expanding its offerings to a mix of community, social and educational programs.

But fortunes changed. After General Motors closed its Comstock plant in 1999 and people left with the jobs, the town noticed a shift in its population. Its residents were aging, and many of the young families that were left were struggling. The poverty rate among residents nearly tripled. The Community Center responded by providing services such as a food pantry, holiday food baskets and other assistance.

“We know that we live in a rural community where resources are limited,” says Mary Gustas, executive director of the Comstock Community Center. “I think as a community center we’re here to provide necessary services that aren’t being met in our area. Our objective is to provide a healthier community, whether that health may be exercise, grief counseling, food pantry, a child-care facility or whatever is needed to adequately meet the needs of the community.”

By 2009, Comstock saw that its most critical need was on the educational front. In the past decade, Comstock Public Schools’ enrollment decreased by 26 percent, a decline that left the district with a higher concentration of low-income students. In 2011, 70 percent of students in CPS’ students qualified for free or reduced-price school lunches based on their family incomes. The change in demographics was accompanied by a significant slide in test scores.

On top of that, the community’s families were facing somewhat of a child-care crisis. “We found that in the past five years, three child-care providers, two of them centers, in Comstock closed,” Gustas says. “We did a needs assessment and found there was definitely a need for high-quality child care.”

It was also apparent that the community needed early-childhood education programs to prepare children for success in K-12 classes. And so, again, the Comstock Community Center responded, and the Community Learning Center was born.

Stimulus dollars at work

The vision for the Community Learning Center was multi-faceted. It would provide high-quality, curriculum-based care for children 6 weeks old to fifth-graders. It would include a critically needed infant and toddler program, a preschool and support for children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

“We were told it would take two to three years to build the program we needed,” Gustas says, “but we didn’t have two or three years.”

Then came stimulus dollars.

Thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, a federally funded program designed to help kick-start the national economy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture had money to lend and the Community Center’s vision for its learning center fit the criteria.

“I don’t think the USDA knew what to do with us,” Gustas says with a laugh. “We were told there was stimulus money available, and we went after it. We were ready to move and had done our homework on it.”

The USDA provided the Comstock Community Center with a $1.74 million loan to expand its learning program beyond the single preschool classroom at the center’s King Highway building. The loan was used to purchase and renovate a 12,500-square-foot building on River Street that formerly housed the Kalamazoo Valley Plant Growers Association. The new learning facility would eventually create more than two dozen part-time and full-time jobs.

“The USDA was very specific that the project had to be shovel-ready,” says Rayline Manni, who is heading the Comstock Community Center’s capital campaign. “And we were. Nine months later, we had the Community Learning Center up and running.”

Inside the Center

It’s hard to imagine the Community Learning Center as anything but what it is now. A building that once housed offices and cubicles is now brightly painted and divided into roomy classrooms. There are rooms for infant care, toddler care, preschool, before- and after-school care, tutoring and summer programs.

In the preschool area, two large murals painted by local artist Conrad Kaufman greet the students, and each space has been planned carefully. The infant and toddler area has a separate playground with a rubberized surface for safety. Walls between classrooms are movable to allow spaces to become bigger or smaller depending on need.

There’s a bilingual preschool classroom to help prepare children who are primarily speakers of Spanish for kindergarten in English-speaking schools. “In the fall, the instruction in the bilingual room is 90 percent Spanish and 10 percent English. By May it will be 90 percent English and 10 percent Spanish,” Manni says.

The bilingual preschool was especially important given that the Hispanic-American population is higher on the eastern side of Kalamazoo County, including Comstock Township, according to a 2012 report by Kalamazoo County Health and Community Services. The center worked with the local Hispanic American Council to recruit families whose children would benefit from the bilingual preschool, which has a capacity of 12 students.

The Learning Center is also a Kalamazoo County Ready 4s site. Ready 4s is a program that aims to ensure that every 4-year-old has the opportunity to attend a high-quality pre-kindergarten program.

“Our objective is to get them when they are 6 weeks old and then we get to support them through age 12,” Gustas says. “If a child can’t read by third grade, the propensity for them to drop out as they get older is much higher. If we can prepare them to enter the K-through-12 system, they will become more successful.”

For struggling students who are already in elementary school, the Learning Center provides an afterschool tutoring program to help bring them up to grade level. The center partners with Comstock Public Schools to identify areas where students could use more support. Consistently, the greatest need has been in reading, and this year the program is working with kindergartners through fifth-graders.

Tutors for the program are volunteers from all over the area. Many are Eaton Corp. or PNC Bank employees, while others are retirees who are comfortable working with kids. Tutors are trained by Learning Center staff to understand different learning styles and work with children. The results have been more than encouraging.

“By the end of last year (May 2013), 92 percent of the students in the program had come up to reading at their grade level,” Manni says. “A third of those were reading above their grade level. That one-on-one work makes an amazing difference.”

“It makes my head spin when I look at the numbers,” Gustas says.

Beyond offering academic and child-care services, the Community Learning Center also has become a resource for at-risk families. Manni says the target market for the center is those “in-between families” – families with working parents who make too much money to qualify for public assistance but not enough to afford quality day care.

“That demographic is prevalent in Comstock,” Manni says, pointing out that the mean household income in Comstock is $45,000 to $47,000 a year, “Many families are working two jobs at minimum wage or just over and need quality child care to do it. So we are supporting the workforce and local employers by providing high-quality child care in this part of the greater Kalamazoo area.”

The center offers privately funded scholarships to make sure no family is turned away. But part of the center’s success depends on “full-pay” families, those who don’t utilize scholarships or subsidies to pay for their child care. Manni notes that developing the Learning Center’s curriculum and amenities was done with an eye toward attracting families of all economic means.

“The economic diversity among our families is a benefit to all,” she says. “Both parents and children bring their unique experiences to the CLC, and they all learn with and from each other.” There must be something to that theory. While 70 to 75 percent of the families utilizing the Learning Center come from the east side of Kalamazoo County, the center does serve families from as far away as Mattawan, Climax and Plainwell.

“It really depends on where people are coming from and going to in their work and home commutes,” Manni says.

First capital campaign

Now that the Community Learning Center is a reality, there’s another reality out there: having to pay off the $1.74 million USDA loan that funded the center. For the first time in its history, the Comstock Community Center has engaged in a capital campaign to raise money. The $2 million campaign, which ends in December, has raised $650,000 to date.

“The campaign is mainly for the CLC — $1.74 million is for the Community Learning Center, and $260,000 is for the Comstock Community Center building on King Highway, where adult programs are held and community services are accessed,” Manni says. “That building is now 40 years old, and improvements are needed for the restrooms, kitchen doors and to improve overall accessibility.”

Currently the Comstock Community Center’s operating revenue is a mix of funding from a tax millage, United Way, grants, program fees and fees for contract services it provides. But the Learning Center has added a new dimension — and expense — to the operating budget.

Comstock residents are used to the Community Center’s self-sufficiency, Gustas says, “so the capital campaign is a bit of a new concept for our organization, our board and the community.”

As part of its campaign, the Community Center will host a fundraising dinner and auction from 5 to 8 p.m. April 24 at River Street Flowerland, 1300 River St. Manni says the event is another way to help draw attention to the new Learning Center.

“Our challenge is that for decades the Community Center has been focused on providing services day to day and we haven’t been out in the community telling our story,” Manni says. “We’re finding we need to do a lot of education to inform and develop relationships with those who can help support the campaign and the children, families and older adults we serve.”

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