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Bard College at LAYC: A Transformational Experience PDF Print
Friday, 07 February 2014 15:42

Last month, I attended a college-level philosophy class at LAYC where students discussed Plato's concept of school as a place to create and question. Philosophy classes at LAYC?

In 1995, Bard College and author and educator Earl Shorris created the Clemente Course in the Humanities to teach humanities at the college level to low-income people who dreamed of going to college but found that life got in the way, who thought college beyond their reach, and who never imagined they could succeed in higher education. Named after the Puerto Rican baseball Hall of Fame player Roberto Clemente, the course brought humanities classes into urban communities and Native American reservations. Now, it's world-wide.

Mary Janney, a well-known DC educator and activist who passed away two years ago, brought the Clemente Course to DC and thought LAYC the perfect site for this educational experiment.

For twelve years, college-level professors have taught philosophy, art history, world history, literature, and writing two evenings a week at LAYC's DC anchor site. At the end of the nine-month course, faculty review each student's work; those who have met criteria of attendance, participation, and intellectual growth receive six general education credits from Bard College. The course, including all books, is free, as is on-site childcare.

The night I visited, philosophy class was taught by professor Chuck, aka Charles Verharen, Ph.D., professor and chair of graduate studies at Howard University. He has been teaching in our program since 2007. Outside, it was cold and windy. Inside, not one of the 26 students was absent, and few were late.

The two-hour class covered a lot of ground. In addition to engaging conversation about philosophic concepts of Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, and Plato, there was discussion about the meaning and importance of critical analysis, an upcoming 10-page research paper, and how to take notes while reading.

Professor Chuck emphasized that the purpose of learning is to question and to create new knowledge. The class was lively and full of energy, with lots of hand-raising, talking, laughing, and supporting each other's comments. I could feel that learning and thinking was occurring.

Who are these students? They are African-American, African, and Latino. Ranging in age from 17 to 28, some have graduated from high school but had no further educational plan—until an LAYC staff member suggested the Clemente Course. Many more had completed their GED at LAYC; the course is their first college experience. One student had lived in an LAYC housing program for homeless youth. Another had been gang-involved and disconnected from any educational setting. Several are LAYC AmeriCorps members who grew up in DC, graduated from high school, but had no plans and no money to go to college. Some are students at the LAYC Career Academy and the Next Step public charter schools, studying for the GED by day and enrolled in a college course by night. They are all low-income. They are all college students.

Bard College Clemente Course at LAYC is truly transformational; I was deeply moved by what I saw. I am so proud of our students, our LAYC staff who guide and encourage them, and our professors.

Without LAYC, these young people would not be able to wear the "college student" label. Instead, their labels would be homeless, teen parent, drop-out, disconnected, juvenile delinquent, gang member, undocumented with no pathway to college, at-risk, or under-achiever. They are not those labels! They are college students, parents, employees, national community service volunteers, artists, writers, philosophers, and critical thinkers. They are young people thirsty to learn and engage in the world around them.

When we introduced this humanities course at LAYC, it was a risky idea. Today over 200 students have walked through LAYC's doors right into college.

A special thank you to the Cafritz Foundation that has provided lead funding for many years. I hope LAYC can continue to adequately fund this important program. It isn't easy.

If you would like to donate to Bard College Clemente Course at LAYC, sit in on a class, tutor or mentor a student – just give me a call or donate online. I will look forward to hearing from you.

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