Academy Expands Facility, and Hope

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007

Sheila Watts is a 46-year-old office assistant at a lobbying firm, a college student, an aspiring writer and a mother of seven children, whose education she monitors and encourages. She's also the first person to break what she calls "a lot of cycles in my family": illiteracy, alcoholism, joblessness and dropping out of school.

Watts owes much of her success, she said yesterday, to the Academy of Hope, an adult education center that aims to use its new 9,400-square-foot modern facility in a Northeast Washington housing complex to help even larger numbers of D.C. residents like her.

"I knew deep down inside me there was something that was going to come out, and that was brilliance," said Watts, a seventh-grade dropout who took seven years off and on to complete the academy's External Diploma Program. "Every time I went back, they opened their arms to me."

With a $200,000 grant from Oprah Winfrey's Angel Network and aid from other foundations, the Academy of Hope renovated the community rooms at Edgewood Terrace this year, installing a fully wired learning center, two computer labs, classrooms, a career counseling center and a student lounge. The facility was unveiled yesterday for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), other officials, students and apartment residents. The academy receives $170,000 a year in federal and D.C. funds earmarked to fight adult illiteracy.

The academy leases the facility from the Community Preservation and Development Corp., the nonprofit housing developer that owns the 800-unit Edgewood Terrace.

The partnership with the developer to offer educational services for adults inside the apartment complex is the first of its kind in the city, said Lecester Johnson, the academy's executive director. Focused generally on battling the District's high illiteracy rate -- 36 percent of adults are considered illiterate, according to studies -- the academy hopes to reach the tenants on-site at Edgewood Terrace, Johnson said.

According to the Census Bureau, 31 percent of adults in the tract dominated by Edgewood Terrace lack a high school diploma, and 29 percent have incomes below the federal poverty guidelines. One-third of Edgewood's tenants receive rent subsidies, Johnson said, and we "believe that they could benefit from our services."

The larger center will allow the academy to double the number of students it serves in computer and GED classes to 800 a year, Johnson said.

Started in 1985 by Church of the Savior volunteers in a storage room of an Adams Morgan housing complex, the academy eventually moved into the crowded basement of National Memorial Baptist Church in Columbia Heights.

About 350 students have received high school credentials through the academy, taking an average of two years but as many as 10 years in a few cases, Johnson said. Seventy-seven percent of graduates have gone on to college or other vocational training. The number of students on public assistance dropped 85 percent after they graduated with credentials.

Since the academy moved to Edgewood Terrace in January, the number of Northeast residents enrolled in it has doubled, and the number of young adults age 18 to 24 jumped from 10 to 30 percent , Johnson said

Graduate Kevin Watson, 46, said the academy changed his life, which had been marked by years of drug abuse, rehabilitation failures, theft and short-term jobs.

"It was March 24, 2004, and that was the day that began my road to recovery and kept me focused on my hope and dream of one day achieving my GED," Watson said. "It was a long struggle, but it was the staff and tutors that kept my hope alive."

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