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Liz Duncan’s leadership fuels the Chets Creek Academic Resource Center

In a true community, everyone looks out for one another. Should someone fall behind, others are waiting to make sure they get home safely.

Liz Duncan’s leadership brought the Chets Creek Elementary Academic Resource Center to Portside.
Liz Duncan’s leadership brought the Chets Creek Elementary Academic Resource Center to Portside.
Provided by Liz Duncan
Liz Duncan (right) and KK Cherney speak during the opening of the Academic Resource Center
Liz Duncan (right) and KK Cherney speak during the opening of the Academic Resource Center
Provided by Liz Duncan

For years, Liz Duncan and her colleagues from Chets Creek Elementary School in Jacksonville, Fla. were aware that many students from the nearby Portside mobile home community were not always keeping up. Nearly 250 of the school’s 1,200 students live there, but in spite of the best school-based interventions, too many of them were falling behind.

That changed in May 2010.

Spearheaded by Duncan in the true spirit of community collaboration, Chets Creek joined with Portside’s property owners, American Residential Communities, to open the Chets Creek Elementary Academic Resource Center at Portside.

Staffed by Chets Creek teachers and volunteers and funded and supplied by American Residential Communities, it offers Portside’s children the type of access to books, computers and tutoring that can make a difference.

“Many kids from the neighborhood are unable to participate in our before and after school safety net programs,” said Duncan, Chets Creek’s behavior specialist. “So we figured that if they can’t come to us, we need to go to them.”

That need is significant. A large percentage of the school’s academically at risk and free and reduced lunch children reside in Portside. It also has a growing number of ESOL (English as a Second Language) students.

But before the school could “go to them” they had to first build a relationship and establish that they did not want to do something “to” or “for” the community, but rather, “with” the community deeply involved.

That relationship began when Duncan organized a “day of service” between her church, her school and Portside’s Community Manager, Jermaine White. Duncan brought a small army of volunteers and White rallied 300 of Portside’s 2,400 residents to come out and meet their Chets Creek neighbors. Food was shared, yards were landscaped, mobile homes were pressure washed and weatherproofed, and friendships were forged.

Duncan knew it was a success when she overheard one parent exclaim, “They really do care about us!”

After that, White toured Chets Creek with Duncan and the school’s media specialist, Karen “KK” Cherney. Cherney shared with him a long-held dream, which she and Duncan had often discussed, of establishing a modest satellite library at Portside. “Just a closet where I can store a few books,” she modestly suggested.

When White responded, “Maybe we can do better than that,” Cherney and Duncan were hopeful. When he sent them an unsolicited mock brochure entitled, “The Portside-Chets Creek Partnership” complete with the following vision statement: “To launch and operate a resourceful media center to foster learning and creativity that leads to measurable performance improvement for student residents,” they knew they had found the right person to make their dream come true.

In May 2010, White and Chets Creek teachers and volunteers were joined by American Residential Communities’ senior management as well as several hundred Portside residents to christen the “Chets Creek Elementary Academic Resource Center at Portside.”

It was the start of a great relationship that has since blossomed beyond Duncan’s wildest vision to involve a growing number of community organizations and businesses.

In September 2011, the McKenzie Noelle Wilson Foundation, a non-profit committed to improving the lives of young people, joined the Chets Creek/American Residential Communities/ Beach United Methodist Church partnership. The center was re-named the McKenzie’s Academic Resource Center (MARC) and has expanded to include Portside’s middle and high school students.

Kid friendly and inviting, MARC bares little resemblance to the old pool house that it once was: Fresh paint, new carpet, floor pillows, sturdy furniture, a hand-painted mural of a beach scene enhancing one wall and children’s art work the others all provide the perfect setting for students to enjoy its computers, rotating library of books and reading/tutoring room.

Volunteers provide tutoring, mentorship, academic and safety programs for students, while parents benefit from weekly English, financial planning and family counseling classes. The center averages 80 kids per week after school and another 80 on Saturdays. It is also open during the summer.

The center’s partners have initiated plans to use MARC as a model to create school-directed learning centers throughout Jacksonville and the country, and it has flourished into a true outreach program, providing a variety of health related and education services to the community.

“What they are doing is what people really need,” said Marisol León, who has a second grader at Chets Creek, “This is for our kids, and this is for America’s future, right?”

José and Elizabeth Huertas agree that this is a necessary program and not just for the kids, but also the parents.

“A lot of people here want to be involved, but they either don’t know how since they don’t speak fluent English or they don’t have transportation,” said José, “Because it is at our home and because they teach classes, people benefit from it.”

Kari Lonie – whose first grade daughter Kailey was in the minority in proudly declaring her love of reading while other kids pointed to the computers as their favorite thing about the center – likes the academic benefits.

“A lot of kids go through the summer and they lose contact with reading,” she said, “This gives them an opportunity to keep up with their reading level.”

Since the center opened, Chets Creek has seen an 80 percent decrease in discipline referrals and 80 percent of its third and fourth graders have met or exceeded the standard on the state’s annual test. For the first time, the school has seen gains from the students living in Portside.

Although Duncan realizes the deep impact of the project and is amazed at its quick expansion, for her it goes back to a simple gesture.

"It's the starfish story," she said, referring to the story in which a young man continues to throw starfish that had washed up on the shore back in the ocean. Although he can't save them all, it makes a difference to each one he touches.

"Portside gives us the ability to focus on a part of the beach loaded with starfish and we can be there and make a difference," she said.

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