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The Francis Center in Niagara Falls gives needy students the confidence to succeed

NIAGARA FALLS – It’s 4 p.m. on a Monday and the sun is streaming through the tall windows, inviting glances outside. But seven young students finish their snacks of milk and cereal and dutifully retrieve their homework.

They are about to receive the extra boost they need through the Francis Center Children’s Program and they appear happy and eager to learn.

For 19 years, Sister Betty Neumeister and her colleagues have given struggling students the individual attention they need to better face their academic challenges, particularly in math and reading.

“This ministry is possible because of our experienced teachers, wonderful and dedicated volunteers, and our many donors,” said Sister Betty, who is the program’s director. “The Francis Center is sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis, Stella Niagara.”

The nonprofit group has rented space in the former St. Stanislaus parish school on 24th Street for the past six years, where 30 children from three local elementary schools arrive after school from 3 to 5 p.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, and from 2 to 4 p.m. every Tuesday, October through May. They may choose to attend on Fridays as well for a fine arts program.

Island Wilson, a well-spoken third-grader from nearby Niagara Street School, is first to offer her assessment.

“I like it here because I learn a lot of stuff,” she said. “And in school, when we do tests, it’s easier.”

A serious little student seated nearby, second-grader Kaleb Jones, added, “I like reading books and doing math sheets.”

His Niagara Street schoolmate, Darryl Smith, concurred.

“I learn to write better and it’s really fun, too,” he added shyly.

“It’s really about helping the kids help themselves,” said Connie Kowalczyk, a retired teacher from Clarence, who began as a volunteer in 2011. “Confidence-building is key to helping these kids read or do anything in life.”

Commenting on the overall program, she added, “It’s a lot of work and I give them (the founders) a lot of credit.”

Sister Betty and three others started the program with just nine students in 1997 in the home she shared with other Franciscan nuns on 13th Street and Ferry Avenue. They began renting classroom space in the abandoned St. Stanislaus School (now Divine Mercy parish) at 335 24th St. because they needed more space. The program is a state-registered after-school program, following its protocol.

The program accepts 30 students per school year, all in second and third grades, and there’s a waiting list.

Third grade critical

“We focus on second and third grades because if a child can’t read at or close to the third-grade level by this time, the chances that he or she will graduate from high school are very slim,” Sister Betty said. “The temptation is to drop out. This has been proven true and I use this when I apply for grants.”

The Francis Center, a 501(c)(3) organization, relies on grants to fund its programs because it is free to the families whose children have been selected. Major donors have included James Glynn of the Maid of the Mist Corp. and the late Paul and Joan Joy, of the Joy Family Foundation, all of whom were instrumental in helping the program get started.

Sister Betty said they recruit their young charges by sending a flier home with all second- and third-grade students at the nearby Niagara Street School, Henry J. Kalfas School and Hyde Park School in September and rely on teachers to recommend their neediest students for the program.

Sister Betty said she believes the program is unique because of its strict focus on academics, mainly in the areas of math and reading, with English Language Arts close behind.

“Math and reading are a real challenge for these children,” she noted. “And, now with the Common Core math, a lot of parents say this is beyond even them.”

Sister Betty and retired teachers Ann Moore, Linda Koester and Christine Reichmuth make up the teaching team, working with the same small group of children each day. Adding to the challenge, they, too, have had to learn how to teach the Common Core methods.

“The teachers will send us books ahead of time and we have to study the day before so that we can help the children,” she noted with a laugh.

Once a child is recommended by a teacher and accepted to the program, the parent must come to the school to register and the child must attend every day except Fridays, which are optional fine arts days.

“Sometimes, this (fine arts) is a way for a child to excel,” Sister Betty said. “Some students listen very carefully and are precise in what they do – but free in their art, of course. We frame their work and have an art show and kindness program at the end of May and invite the families.”

A typical academic program day is very structured, and Sister Betty said this is something the children crave.

Structure is key

“Structure is a very important part of a child’s life, especially at this age,” she said. “Some children come from single-parent homes and it’s typically the mother who is trying to work and raise her family and doesn’t have time to help with math or reading.”

Students from Niagara Street School walk to the after-school program, while the Kalfas students are bused and the Hyde Park children must get rides.

“We start with a healthy snack from Heart and Soul – they’ve been very good to us,” Sister Betty said. “Then the children get help with their homework. Each student has a folder here with math and reading, so if they don’t have homework, they always receive reinforcement with math and reading.

“The children read a book at their level and log it each day,” she added. “We have received a variety of books from a lot of good people. The children work together a lot, too, and that’s wonderful to see.”

After academics, “we play a game,” Sister Betty said. “The children have fun, but they don’t realize they’re also learning.”

In addition, Kowalczyk, the retired Clarence teacher, arrives three days a week with the Magic Penny specialized reading program, which is phonics-based. Sister Betty said she was able to find a grant this year for the program through St. Christopher’s Charitable Giving Program in Buffalo.

Chris Truesdell and, occasionally, Kowalczyk, offer art lessons on Fridays, with materials purchased through a grant this year from the Almar Family Foundation.

In addition, more than a dozen volunteers help at least once a week, Sister Betty said. They include grandparents, retired teachers and Niagara University students.

Sister Betty said it is especially gratifying to work with these ages because “children are still excited about school at this age and want to do well.”

She relies on teachers to prioritize and recommend the neediest children – both from an educational and economic standpoint – with a key factor being those whose families couldn’t afford private tutoring.

But she’s clear that, “We’re not here to monitor behavior. We would not accept any child who would consistently disrupt the classroom.”

She said they have also taken into consideration those children who might need help learning how to better socialize.

Supplemental programs

In addition, the center offers sessions called “Girl Talk” for fourth- and fifth-graders, held on four Fridays after school. Guest speakers cover self-esteem, positive relationships, nutrition and hygiene. And, a baby-sitting course is offered one Saturday a year by the American Red Cross through a grant.

The center also offers a summer program limited to 20 students, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. every weekday in July. This is open to those who will be third- and fourth-graders in the fall. The United Way of Niagara County has administered the funds for this program through the Martha Beeman Foundation.

“We read books about what you’d find at an aquarium or zoo and then take the children on field trips to the Niagara Falls Aquarium and Buffalo Zoo,” she said. “They also swim and use the gym at Niagara Street School and also go to Niagara University to see their short, funny plays. We work hard all morning and then play hard in the afternoon.”

Dolores Kozinski, Ann Marie Galbo and Sister Barbara Pfohl join Sister Betty to teach in the summer. They also have a youth helper in the afternoons, Kacper Kozminski, who was a student in this program and now attends the University at Buffalo.

Kozminski is a good example of how the program is working. Sister Betty said there are other signs, as well.

“We know some of our children are working – they’re not on the streets,” she said. “Some even have management jobs at Tops. If our child is working – that’s a success. That means we’ve contributed in some small way.

“We look at the results of the Northwest Evaluation Association’s tests, given in their schools, and our students show a 100 percent improvement in math, and 89 percent improvement in reading and in Language Arts,” Sister Betty said. “Their teachers see improvements and the parents are always grateful for this program.”

A child’s success “is probably a combination of factors, but we know that some of it is what we do here,” she said.