CARE program gives at-risk youths a boost

Saturday, January 19, 2008 | 4:47 p.m. CST; updated 5:40 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — It’s 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, and Kim Partney, coordinator of the Career Awareness Related Experience program, is busy at her computer in a quiet office with walls covered in paintings, furniture and sculptures created by teenagers.

Wearing a button-down blouse and reading glasses, a strategically placed pencil holding together a small bun, Partney prepares for her workday.

Suddenly, an 8-year-old rushes in to greet her. He’s there for an afternoon of tutoring, and it seems he can’t wait.

“Can I play the frog game?” he asks. In a motherly tone, Partney tells him he can play the game only after he does some reading.

Partney specializes in forging strong relationships with the children and teenagers who come through the CARE program. It’s those bonds that help her keep a positive attitude even under an increasing workload.

Partney wears two hats at CARE. She’s been coordinator for the past 4½ years but has recently taken on the role of main tutor as well. Although the program is designed for high school students, Partney made an exception for her 8-year-old pupil.

“I agreed to take him because he needed one-on-one reading,” she said. “I took him in because I was afraid that others wouldn’t help him the way I could.”

The boy is one of six students who benefit from Partney’s tutoring, a service that’s one of the newest additions to the CARE repertoire. Throughout the years, there have been several changes made to the city-funded program that began in 1982.

Originally designed to assist youths with job placement, CARE added from 2000 to 2005 not only tutoring services but also an art gallery that enables kids to develop their creative skills. Prior to 2004, CARE was a summer program through which about 175 junior high students were offered jobs with local businesses. By 2005, it had become a year-round program that also offered jobs to about 30 high school students who were at risk of dropping out.

Since fiscal 2002, the budget for CARE has increased about 17.5 percent, including from $340,000 to $399,000 this fiscal year. Still, with all the new services, it’s difficult to make ends meet. In the past, Partney was able to hire one or two tutors, but this year she must handle much of the tutoring on her own, although she doesn’t seem to mind.

“Since I’m happy to provide the service, there is no need to set aside any special funds.”

The expansion of the program began when Hickman High School instructor Jana Crane called Partney after the school year began to participate in the Missouri Options Program, started in 2002 by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to address rising high school dropout rates. Schools that participate receive a small amount of money for each student who attends GED classes and maintains a job.

When Crane began to notice the difficulty students had with finding jobs, she called Partney for advice. That phone call initiated the cooperative effort to find jobs for high-school age teenagers. Crane also began sending students to Partney for outside tutoring.

“It’s a way for me to help those students find a place that they need,” Crane said.

Partney’s background as a teacher makes her an effective tutor. After earning her English degree at MU, she taught at Oakland Junior High School for two years. After that, she worked for five years under Jack King, the original organizer of CARE, followed by four years as an adult education instructor at Douglass High School and two years as a teacher in the Tipton Correctional Center. Then she decided it was time to return to CARE.

“There’s a lot of gratification working with young people,” Partney said. “They still surprise you and aren’t afraid to say what’s on their mind.”

Partney isn’t alone at CARE. MU graduate Danielle Eldred heads the CARE gallery, and MU communications student James Echols is the job coach. Both also volunteer to help Partney with tutoring from time to time.

One of Eldred’s students is 16-year-old Nema Nyirabaganwa, who moved to Columbia from Rwanda nine months ago and now attends Hickman. Nyirabaganwa uses CARE’s tutoring services as a way to learn the language and to better understand her class lectures.

“I really like the program and the tutors are nice,” she said.

Eldred said Nyirabaganwa’s positive attitude makes her “very easy to work with.” Partney agreed, saying she’s the kind of person that the CARE staff loves to help.

“We definitely limit it to students who respond well to tutoring,” she said.

During the past four-plus years, Partney has watched youths from disadvantaged backgrounds or with failing grades come to CARE, refocus themselves, catch up with their learning, then go on to college and to full-time jobs.

“That’s the reward,” she said. “To be able to witness success is really kind of inspiring.”

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