Five elementary school kids in plastic yellow construction hats stood in a line on the grass at north Madison's Vera Court Neighborhood Center Monday, chanting as a group.
“I will respect myself and others in the community,” they said. “I will have fun and play fair. I am a stupendous Vera Court kid!”
They were demonstrating part of their daily VCNC routine for community leaders and donors, who were equally enthusiastic about what the center offers.
VCNC was a major player in turning around a struggling neighborhood in the 1990s and its programming been so popular that it has outgrown its building. On Monday, the center announced the launch of a public fundraising campaign to double their space and expand services to boost academic achievement.
The campaign, known as “Vera Vision 2020,” aims to raise $2.2 million dollars, and it’s already more than halfway to that goal. The hope is that by 2020, every Vera Court kid will be reading at or above grade level.
The neighborhood center, located just north of Warner Park, serves over 5,000 residents every year, and 95 percent are low-income.
“1988, 1989, 1990 were not the best years at Vera Court,” Madison Mayor Paul Soglin said Monday. “My guess is if we had asked most of the residents, ‘If you could live somewhere else, would you?’ they would have said yes.’”
Tom McMahan, leader of the Vera Vision steering committee, said the area was the scene of absentee landlords and evictions (comparing the situation to that portrayed in the Pulitzer-prize winning book Evicted), a murder and even drugs in the locker of a second grader.
The center opened in 1994 and helped the area take a positive turn.
Thomas Solyst, executive director of the center, also credited Meridian Group, a property management firm for affordable housing, and Future Wisconsin Housing Corporation, which owns many properties in the Vera Court area. He also gave credit to the parents and kids of Vera Court.
Hortence Nguipet moved to the U.S. from Cameroon in 2010. She said the center helped her daughter, who only spoke French at the time, succeed in school, and all five of her kids have benefited from the center.
“They love it here,” she said.
By 2008, students began to “bubble over the brims,” said Rebecca Ressl, development director at Vera Court.
“As the neighborhood gets stronger and better, the demands increase,” Soglin said.
The center can’t accommodate its 120 kids, so they’re shuttled to nearby spaces like libraries to give them a quiet atmosphere to complete their homework.
The money will double the size of the center, with renovations to the current space including a new computer lab and larger kitchen, which will help provide families with healthy meals. Most of the renovations to the current center have already been completed. Additions will include a new wing for middle and high school students.
Once the new wing is open, there will be no need for shuttles and kids will gain back valuable homework time, Ressl said.
The money will also allow Vera Court to expand services in order to propel children to academic success. Specifically, they want all kids to be at grade-level standards in math and literacy.
The 2015-2016 annual report for the Madison Metropolitan School District showed 78 percent of third-graders hitting their literacy benchmarks. Middle school math proficiency was at 68 percent for white students, but just 12 percent of African-American students and 24 percent for Hispanic students.
Vera Court’s literacy programs have raised participants' reading levels by up to one-and-a-half grade levels, and 89 percent of middle school kids passed their math class last semester. The campaign will allow them to expand these programs.
Currently, one-on-one literacy support is only available for a select number of kids, Ressl said. The funding will allow for literacy tutoring for all kids, and will enable the center to hire tutors and a literacy coordinator.
The campaign will also fund and provide space for family workshops. Workshop topics will be determined by parent interest, Ressl said, but could include teaching parents to read grade reports, advocate for their kids’ education or cook healthy meals.
Solyst said the money will mean “more literacy tutors, we’re going to have more staff, we’re going to have more books, more IT equipment, more staff time, more time to listen to parents, so they can tell us what’s best.”
The campaign has raised 56 percent of the $2.2 million goal, with lead gifts from the city and private individuals, foundations and corporations, Ressl said. Solyst said that one of the most exciting aspects of the campaign was “the support of the whole city, not just the north side.”
Construction on the new wing of the center is already underway and is expected to be completed by September. The expanded tutoring and workshops will also start in the fall.