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Tutoring, football shape futures in Ward 5

By Rachel S. Karas,

What was once an open-air drug market near Rhode Island Avenue is now a room alive with learning and laughter, chatter about spelling homework and schoolyard gossip.

Tucked inside the Edgewood Terrace apartment complex, Beacon House Community Ministries is a free, after-school haven for at-risk students in Northeast Washington. Kids are given a USDA-certified meal with fruit, vegetables and milk, then complete their homework before tutoring sessions, playtime or sports.

Beacon House also runs arts programs, a science club and teen mentoring classes.

Beacon House is a family, said Gerry Kittner, the interim executive director who is beloved by students and parents alike. As students walk into the building, many run to give Kittner and the Rev. Donald “The Rev” Robinson hugs and handshakes.

“By virtue of our tenure, we’re very integrated into the community, and the parents and all the community residents trust us and rely on us,” Kittner said. “A lot of other programs have to go into schools to do their work, and it’s just a little different.”

Beacon House was one of six local organizations awarded a grant this year by The Washington Post Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund.

The nonprofit program received $17,000 to support one-on-one tutoring for students in grades one through six, as well as tutoring and college preparation courses for students in grades seven through 12.

Founded in 1991 by Robinson, a Unitarian Universalist minister, Beacon House has grown from a basement apartment into two 6,000-foot spaces that hold about 125 students each day. Kids in the tutoring program improve reading skills by about two grade levels and math by more than one grade throughout the school year, Kittner said. And, he added, the number of students who continue on to college has risen from three to more than 30 in the past five years.

“We really do make a difference between a kid who just slogs through school and ends up doing whatever, and a kid who’s self-confident and energetic and enthusiastic about school and makes something of his or her life,” Kittner said.

Kairon Cunningham, a seventh-grader at Calvary Christian Academy, describes Beacon House staff this way: “They’re fun, nice and concerned. When people help you with homework, they don’t have to . . . so when they do help with homework, it means they really care about you.”

Kairon, 12, began attending Beacon House programs in 2005 when his grandmother noticed he was struggling with schoolwork. Now he’s an aspiring pro athlete and lawyer who’s thinking about his future and higher education.

“If you’re an eighth-grader, [the education aides] have been to high school and college, so if you have questions, you can ask them,” Kairon said. “They help you learn, but they also make sure you won’t be scared to move up to those schools.”

Kittner said there is one adult for approximately 15 kids seeking homework help. “The Washington Post grant helps us keep that ratio — it essentially paid for a staff member.”

The nonprofit hopes to find the funds to expand its offerings for gifted students and integrate more of the 350 players on its 10 football teams into the academic programs.

Beacon House Falcons football is the most successful of the nonprofit’s athletics program, winning the Pop Warner league’s Jr. Pee Wee and Pee Wee national championships in 2010 and 2007, respectively, Athletic Director Rodney Cephas said.

“There’s a lot of kids who, by the time they’re 5 years old, are looking to be football players for Beacon House. It’s a real culture,” Kittner said. “We’re so successful that other teams forfeit sometimes because we win too much.”

For more stories on Washington Post Charities grant recipients, go to washingtonpost.com/community-relations/charitable-giving.

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