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Proving that even at-risk kids do learn

The tiny school sits in a census tract where the median household income of $21,194 is less than half the national figure of $50,054.

Look around the neighborhood, and it shows. But the students have their eyes on something else.

After class at Our Lady of Hope Home School on Walden Avenue, they stick around for tutoring by volunteers or OLH grads. The world outside – with the traps of East Side life – can’t compete with what they find in here.

“I think I have the whole world by studying,” said eighth-grader Viadel Reyes, 14, whose artwork adorns the school’s walls and earned him a scholarship to an Albright-Knox Art Gallery program.

There are thousands like him throughout the city who – with the right environment, nurturing and support – would be just as motivated. The fact that they aren’t says more about adults than about the kids. At Our Lady of Hope, it really is about the kids.

The pre-K through eighth-grade school, part of St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, started with 13 kids six years ago and grew to the current 38. The teachers come from closed Catholic schools, though it’s not supported by the diocese. Tuition and uniforms are free, thanks to donors, as are field trips to events such as University at Buffalo games to show the kids “there’s life outside the East Side … but you have to work,” said attorney Mike Taheri, OLH director.

They also need support to make up for what’s missing in parts of the East Side. Not many suburban students take the bus to SATs or have to be given dress clothes for going to interviews – typical challenges at OLH, where the goal is to extend the school day because it’s the best place for some kids to be.

The support ranges from college tours to help with high school entrance exams and scholarship applications.

“They’re always, like, a phone call away,” said Sydnie Perkins, 18, an OLH grad who went to Holy Angels Academy and now majors in psychology and communications at Canisius College.

“Everyone is so close; you have a really good bond and connection with the teachers,” said Tiffany Velado, 18, a Spanish and international relations major who also followed the OLH-Holy Angels pipeline to Canisius.

I met Taheri after a recent column about coming up with concrete, measurable steps – not more meetings – to save kids in troubled neighborhoods. He had something he felt worked. And while OLH doesn’t give Regents exams, he pointed to another metric as proof: All its grads get scholarships to top-shelf Catholic high schools and colleges.

“These kids are as bright as kids anywhere,” said Paul Lewis, a retired suburban educator who tutors at OLH.

Holy Angels President Joan Thomas gushes over OLH and says its grads come to her school “very well-prepared.”

So, is OLH widely replicable?

Perhaps not. At best – as Thomas suggests – troubled city schools might zero in on a few kids and give them intense support like OLH kids get.

But beyond that, maybe Our Lady of Hope simply stands as an example of this: All kids can learn.

That, in itself, is educational for a society that doesn’t really believe it.