It’s hard being a Westport middle schooler.
Navigating academic and social pressures in class, then during a gantlet of after-school sports, tutoring and other activities — it’s a perilous journey discovering who you are, and who you wnat to be.
But being a middle school student in Bridgeport is exponentially more difficult.
Options and opportunities are much more limited. Meanwhile, the burdens — financial, family and the like — are far greater.
Fortunately, there is the Urban Scholars After School Program.
Run by LifeBridge — a remarkable community service organization — Urban Scholars is an after-school STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) program with an important SEL (social emotional learning) component.
Drawing 6th through 9th graders from throughout Bridgeport to a bright, colorful facility in the city’s West End, it offers a welcoming, loving, challenging — even life-changing — home for 3 hours every day.
And it’s completely free.
Urban Scholars provides art, robotics, music (guitar, piano, drums), performing arts, science, dance, yoga, and special interest clubs like baking, games, cosmetology, community service and sports. There is tutoring and homework help every day too.
Teachers, social workers, AmericCorps VISTA workers, volunteers, interns and working artists all help. They expose dozens of boys and girls to opportunities they’d never get, like working with robots or playing a musical instrument.
They urge them to try new things, and encourage every success. They model teamwork and leadership. They help participants with self-esteem, relationships and managing emotions.
They are, literally and figuratively, “life bridges” at a crucial time in children’s development.
Youngsters hoping to be part of the Urban Scholars program are interviewed; so are their parents, grandparents or other guardians. The directors work with those adults are partners, making sure attendance is regular and any issues are dealt with together.
Things that Westporters take for granted, like transportation, can be big barriers to participation. Participants walk, ride bikes, are dropped off, or ride city buses. Staff members accompany them to bus stops. Small details like that mean a lot.
I know all this because Bill Harmer arranged a tour last week. The Westport Library executive director is committed to sharing his institution’s many resources, with partners that align with its mission.
He is exploring ways that the Westport Library can collaborate with LifeBridge and the Urban Scholars program.
“Our donors, staff and board believe in sharing,” Harmer says. From the Verso Studios, StoryFest and music festivals to its people, he wants the Library to reach out beyond its physical walls.
Ultimately, he hopes that youngsters from Westport and Bridgeport can collaborate — and perhaps other towns too.
Last week’s tour was eye-opening. Program officials proudly showed off the bright rooms on 2 floors of the LifeBridge building. Three working robots sat on lab tables. Student art decorated the walls (a larger mural program is in the works). Musical motifs encourage exploration in 2 rooms filled with instruments. The tutoring center includes both small tables and an adjacent “quiet room.”
The Urban Scholars program runs through the summer too. This year, nearly 120 boys and girls took part.
Though families pay nothing — a big reason so many children are able to participate — the program is expensive. The school-year program budget is approximately $800,000; the summer one is another $200,000.
Funding comes entirely from grants, individual donations and AmeriCorps VISTA.
It’s less than 10 miles from the Westport Library to the Bridgeport Urban Scholars After School Program at LifeBridge. If Bill Harmer’s vision comes true, that distance may soon be even shorter.
(To learn more about the Urban Scholars After School Program, click here, or contact CEO Edith Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org; 203-368-5550. To donate, contact Lori Goertz: email@example.com; 203-368-5581.
(LifeBridge also runs a community closet, with free clothes, school supplies, books, infant goods and more. Once a month, every member of an Urban Scholar’s family can choose three complete outfits. It’s also open to everyone getting any services through LifeBridge. To learn more bout the community closet and other LifeBridge programs — including how to donate –, watch the video below, and click here.)
(“06880” is “Where Westport meets the world.” To help us do that, please click here.)