Notre Dame Learning Center Has a Ministry to Tutor Inner-city Kids

Founded in Rochester in 2004, the learning center has helped over 1,500 inner city students so far. Nuns running the program are inviting people to become tutors at the program

By John Addyman

They really love to come up here,” she said.

Notre Dame Learning Center staff members are, from left, board of trustees bember Joseyye Battisti, Executive Director Sister Evelyn Breslin (seated), Business Manager Tina Fay and Program Manager Laura Canne.

Others around the table nodded. They’d all seen it.

“We know that the relationship between the student and our tutor is really important, that the child feels like they have one specific person paying attention to them,” Evelyn Breslin said. “I think that’s what really attracts students to come up.”

Breslin, 77, a nun in the School Sisters of Notre Dame order, was sitting in a brightly lit room on the third floor of the Charles Settlement House in Rochester. There wasn’t a single light on in that room. The glow was coming from her.

She was talking about the Notre Dame Learning Center, which she heads — an after-school tutoring program that Lorraine Antczak, 92, a sister nun, founded in 2004.

All around were desks used for tutoring and bookcases full of brightly colored books.

Kids from grades one through nine come once or twice a week to link up with their own tutor, someone who focuses entirely on that child, helping with reading, English or math. And unraveling mysteries, exploring wonders, playing games, doing drills, learning new words and expressing themselves.

Ja’miiyah and her tutor, Marcia (right).

“It’s not an easy thing for kids to do; after a day in school, to want to do more school,” explained Laura Canne, the program director. “The kids who are not in our program who are downstairs always beg to come up here because they really like what we have, that one-on-one attention from someone who’s committed to them for that hour every week.”

Those downstairs kids participate in an after-school program hosted by the Settlement House that includes dinner, from 2:30 to 5 p.m. on school days. About 10 students come upstairs to the Learning Center for tutoring. Another 20 or so kids walk to the Settlement House or are brought by relatives to join their tutors.

Sister Evelyn described the tutors as the heart of the program. NDLC is looking for more. The 30 kids served now could become a larger group if more tutors signed on for a couple of hours a week.

Tutors include former teachers, grandparents and a group of college kids from SUNY Geneseo.

Canne hopes to see students from St. John Fisher, Nazareth and perhaps Roberts Wesleyan join the group. The college tutors work online with students at the center. High school students at Bishop Kearney High School help tutor a satellite NDLC program there.

“Our students are typically not at grade level,” Sister Evelyn said. “They may be in eighth grade, but they’re not able to do eighth grade work. Some of our students bring in their homework and that’s where the tutors can tell where they are in their classes. Not only does the child get help with the homework, but tutors can see where they are academically.”

Addie and her tutor Keith.

She said NDLC does as much as it can to connect tutors and school teachers “so our tutors know if their kids are doing graphing or multiplication or whatever. Our kids are not great reporters when they’re in first and second grade about what it is they’re doing in school.

“We had one student who was talking to his college-age tutor and he was asking her all kinds of questions: ‘Do you sleep there? Do you sleep in the classroom?’ He had no concept of what college was. He decided he wasn’t going to go to college because you had to sleep there.”

Notre Dame Learning Center believes that many inner-city kids do poorly academically because of a lack of the life experiences many other children take for granted. So, the center took kids on a Riverie boat cruise and made it to a Red Wings baseball game.

“The kids saw egrets on the boat tour and were fascinated by those big white birds,” Canne pointed out.

“On one of the trips we made last summer, we took 25 kids and four tutors on a bus tour of historic Rochester, and ended up at Bill Gray’s,” added Sister Evelyn.

“We’re looking to boost their reading skills by giving them the background information other kids would have,” said Canne.

Sister Evelyn arrived in Rochester in 1968, a year after taking her vows.

“I taught downtown at St. Joseph’s Business School, I taught all the business subjects, including data processing, which I didn’t know in heaven’s name what it was all about, while I was studying at Nazareth,” she said. “I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Nazareth. Then I went to Bishop Kearney as a teacher and finally as administrator — 22 years there. In the next years, I was at School of the Holy Childhood, a school for children with intellectual disabilities, serving with the executive director. I’ve been here at NDLC for 10 years.” said.

“We are a tutoring center here. The reason we were even set up is that when many Catholic schools in the city closed, our sisters said, ‘What type of an imprint can our [religious] community leave in Rochester, since we’ve been here since the early 1800s?’ We, in Rochester, sent a proposal to our provincial government of the School Sisters of Notre Dame and said we’d like to open a tutoring center in Rochester. We had sent a survey to the schools and parishes, asking what should we do? It came back, ‘Stay in education.’ That’s why we opened the Notre Dame Learning Center,” she added. “It’s called a ‘sponsored ministry of the School Sisters of Notre Dame.’ We have 13 sponsored ministries across our Atlantic Midwest Province, which covers New England, Chicago, Canada, New York state, Boston. We are an international community. We’re all over the world. There are fewer sisters in Europe than here.”

She said she has about 4,000 fellow sisters worldwide, but the order is aging.

Funding the center, moving forward

TyShawn and his tutor, Warren.

The learning center has a $100,000 budget, principally paying salaries and rent. Sister Evelyn confessed her salary makes her “basically a volunteer.”

If all you need is love to give kids a better start in life, the center’s love comes from the proceeds of a yearly golf tournament, a yearly appeal that’s mailed to 1,000 people, yearly “Thanks for Giving” calendar that comes out in November and features chances for raffle prizes.

The sisters of Breslin’s order are also sponsors; no funding assistance comes from the Diocese of Rochester. Donations include school supplies and backpacks, which Sister Evelyn was assembling in July.

Every day coming to work, the evidence of the need for the learning center is all around the folks who come there to serve kids. Canne said the future is waiting for more help.

“We’re only limited by the number of tutors we have. We don’t have to recruit students at this point. We would love to have to recruit students. But we need to get more tutors and then we would go to open houses at the schools (where parents learn about services available) and recruit more students,” she said.

Sister Evelyn said the door is wide open for tutors to sign up and help.

“We’re looking for people who love children,” she said. “Our tutors don’t have to have a college degree, but they do make a commitment that they’re here every week, at least once a week. If someone is interested, call us at 585-254-5110, we’ll set up an appointment and bring them in, very often when the kids are here in the afternoon, to talk to them and get their commitment.”

There’s an application form to complete. Prospective tutors must complete the Diocese of Rochester background check and an online program about maintaining a safe environment for children.

“It’s an important thing to us that kids feel safe here —that they’re accepted and cared about,” Canne said. “That’s the feeling I got when I first came here; that the kids feel safe. I am amazed how well-behaved our kids are here. They love being here. They’re full of energy and questions and talking. They love being here.”

Sister Evelyn can unroll a tapestry of stories about the success of the program — the kids who have gone on to college scholarships, to studies in Europe and those who have found success in work and life.

She has seen, over and again, the outcome of equal doses of love and faith.

How to Help

To find out how you can help in the mission of Notre Dame Learning Center, call 585-254-5110 or visit: www.ndlcenter.org.