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Provo not getting enrichment center grant

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PROVO — Greg Hudnall's heart sank when he received word that Provo schools would not receive a much-hoped-for $500,000 federal grant.

Hudnall, Provo District's director of student services, banked on money from the U.S. Department of Education to start a mentoring effort for struggling families facing social problems.

Because of scarce funds, the focus-on-the-family effort will be scaled back and started in piecemeal fashion.

"We believe in the concept, so we'll move forward," Hudnall said. "But it will be smaller than what we wanted."

The initiative, called the Community Enrichment Center, would plug parents into social agencies, provide basic health services and counseling, promote diversity and introduce families to other people in the community who have faced similar challenges.

Such a program is needed in Provo, where, under the shiny veneer of Happy Valley's picket-fence, middle-class reputation, is a level of poverty and social issues that cause heartburn for Provo educators.

In Provo, where enrollment has tumbled nearly 700 students since 1993, fewer than 13,000 students are expected to attend class this fall. But while less state funding is earned because of the dwindling enrollment, records show that external pressures create what one principal calls "road blocks to learning."

For example, four of Utah's 51 schools considered "highly impacted" because of the poverty rates, numbers of single-parent families and percentage of students who speak English as a second language are in Provo.

Plus, some 200 students are refugees, and the number of native Spanish speakers has skyrocketed from 250 in 1992 to 2,500 in 1999.

Hudnall also says the city's high number of rental units — 61 percent of the housing stock — is another pressing problem for the district.

Families who live in rental units often move in the middle of the school year, disrupting the child's learning process and, because enrollment drives funding, causes budgets to fluctuate.

Last year, 36 percent of Provo students transferred schools at least once.

"We have students who have attended six or seven schools by the third grade," Hudnall said.

The idea for the Community Enrichment Center sprang from visits by a group of Provo parents and educators to the so-called Urban Learning Centers in Los Angeles. The education design attempts to make the school the hub of a community, providing after-school activities, extra tutoring, adult education and access to local social-service agencies.

During the California visit, parent Clarissa O'Connor noted that the once-blighted neighborhoods around the learning centers transformed when residents saw how they helped the community.

An initial plan to house the enrichment center at the old Maeser school has drawn considerable fire from concerned homeowners who say property values will decrease if "social programs" are operated from the 101-year-old building, which will be replaced by a new school next fall in southeast Provo.

Provo's Board of Education has not yet decided what programs will be in the old building. But preliminary plans include courses for adults and young mothers, a parent resource center, a program for year-round students who are off-track and teacher-training rooms.

O'Connor, the outgoing PTA president at Maeser, worries that residents will reject the program at first blush if it appears to be a social-service agency rather than an educational tool. She believes the center would benefit Provo.

"I'm also wondering if it can be effective without all the support that is needed," she said.

Hudnall is undeterred by opposition. It is not the district's charge, he said, to work as a neighborhood redevelopment agency. "Our job is to help children and families be successful."

"I don't apologize for trying to help at-risk families," he said. "We either address it now or we deal with it later."

E-MAIL: carter@desnews.com