Mercyhurst Education initiatives get $5 million boost from PDE

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Programs to benefit neediest children in urban, rural regions of Erie County

hirt academic centerMercyhurst University’s ongoing efforts to enhance the academic and physical wellness of hundreds of Erie County’s neediest children got a $5 million boost today from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE).

Through PDE’s 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program, Mercyhurst will receive $2 million to continue the Carpe Diem Academy in the Erie School District. Launched in 2012, the Carpe Diem Academy is a nationally recognized K-2 extended-day learning program for inner-city children and their families. Another $3 million grant will support the new Mercyhurst Early Learning Innovation Academy (MELIA) that will create a Pre-K program in the rural Northwestern School District, as well as extended-day and weekend learning for students and families.

According to Joseph J. Eye, 21st CCLC Program Officer in Harrisburg, the Mercyhurst awards are for five consecutive years, with $1 million to be distributed annually: $400,000 for the Carpe Diem Academy and $600,000 for MELIA.

The 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant is a competitive grant that provides federal funding to establish community learning centers that provide academic, artistic and cultural enrichment opportunities for students and their families. These opportunities must occur during non-school hours or periods when school is not in session to help students attending high-poverty and low-performing schools to meet state and local standards in core academic subjects.

“The continuation of the Carpe Diem Academy has happened largely through the mission-driven commitment of our education department faculty and students,” said Mercyhurst Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Leanne Roberts. Roberts launched the nationally recognized Carpe Diem Academy in 2012 after receiving Mercyhurst’s first 21st Century Community Learning Center grant; at the time, she was chair of the education department.

“Expanding the reach of this program, and the high-quality Pre-K services that Mercyhurst has become well known for, to additional districts in our region is a natural progression and representative of the growth in size and reputation of our teacher education programs,” she added.

The Carpe Diem Academy benefits students in kindergarten, first and second grades at four Erie City elementary schools. The Academy offers instructional support in math, science and reading, as well as arts experiences, such as music and dance, and health and wellness activities. The Academy operates on site at participating schools four days a week from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m., and children also receive a healthy snack and dinner.

“It is always a good day when additional high-quality educational opportunities can be provided to the children of the City of Erie,” said Dr. Phil Belfiore, chair of the Graduate Special Education program at Mercyhurst and primary investigator on the Carpe Diem Academy grant. “We have never shied away from, and have always recognized, our responsibility to the local downtown community.”

Roberts said parent and teacher surveys overwhelmingly indicate behavioral and academic improvements in participants. Benefits also extend to Mercyhurst’s undergraduate and graduate students, who staff the Academy almost entirely.

“This is an amazing opportunity for all involved,” said Carpe Diem Academy Director Amy Bauschard. “Through 21st CCLC funding, we have been able to provide solid after-school programming within Erie’s Public Schools. We are now able to expand and provide a comprehensive program to a rural district with a great need.”

In the Northwestern School District, grant monies will enable Mercyhurst to replicate the extended-day learning model to K-2 students at both Springfield and Northwestern elementary schools, launch a Summer Scholars program to reduce “summer slide,” (i.e., the academic gains made during the previous school year); and create two preschool classrooms, co-taught by Mercyhurst Special Education graduate students.

Mercyhurst Education Department Chair Dr. Susan Johnson, primary investigator on the Northwestern grant, said that the reasons for choosing the Northwestern School District were multifaceted. “As a team, we knew that the opportunities afforded through the Carpe Diem Academy certainly enriched the lives of participating students in urban areas. But we also recognized that there is a similar reality in poor, rural areas that often goes unfunded and unsupported. We felt an overwhelming drive to meet that need,” she said.

Northwestern School District is a rural, economically disadvantaged school district that experiences the same economic, health, and educational hardships and inequities seen in poor, urban communities. This includes high rates of unemployment, lack of access to adequate health care, disproportionate percentages of students identified as requiring special education services, and mass qualification for free lunch. Johnson said, “We have a unique opportunity to be able to address some of these needs through our culturally-responsive programming.”

Roberts, meanwhile, credited Bauschard, Johnson, and Belfiore along with Matthew Sanfilippo, director of grants, for tackling two challenging proposals – one urban and one rural – that will go a long way toward supporting some of Erie County’s neediest children and families.

In related education department news, Mercyhurst was named “Lead Partner” at John Diehl Elementary School this spring as part of the Community Schools initiative, a strategy launched in 2016 by the United Way to incorporate a wide range of resources in Erie schools to support students and their families.