Despite struggles at Bluffton House, nonprofit group model proves successful

Neighborhood Outreach Connection plans to expand program locations

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comDecember 21, 2013 

The Bluffton House apartments that Neighborhood Outreach Connection -- a nonprofit that provides educational support to low-income families -- once called home were empty Friday afternoon.

The posters were gone, the desks and computers absent. And most importantly, the students that normally filled the rooms after school were nowhere to be found.

The only thing that remained was a white board with various messages scribbled across it saying how much the children and families love NOC and how important the program is.

Neighborhood Outreach Connection has vacated two subsidized apartments in the complex and must downsize its program. It was a heatbreaking turn of events -- according to program leaders, students and district teachers -- because the program has scored some successes.

But NOC said it still will be present at Bluffton House and plans to expand its unique model to other communities in Bluffton, Hilton Head and greater Beaufort County.

"The immediate impact will be huge, especially as these kids are showing significant improvements," NOC founding chairman Naren Sharma said. "We are losing momentum in this neighborhood when the program is having an impact -- the teachers schools and parents will tell you that."

The group has a unique model that sets it apart from many other after-school programs, Sharma said. One of the main differences is that it partners with the Beaufort County School District.

Sharma said Neighborhood Outreach Connection pays teachers to come in and work with the students outside the classroom.

The program also has the same computer programs that students use at school on the computers at the NOC apartments, said Ally McNair, vice chair of the program's board. This allows students to continue working on classroom work after school and lets teachers keep up with their progress.

Through this additional work, Sharma said the program extends school time by more than 200 hours throughout the year. But instead of touting its own success, the program has the school district measure its progress.

"We are using the schools and the district to monitor our results and hold us accountable," Sharma said. "From the beginning we have told the district that they will tell us how our students are doing."

Superintendent Jeffrey Moss said the students are doing well. In their classes and on standardized tests, students are meeting -- and in many cases exceeding -- the average scores of Beaufort County students.

"We have a good partnership with NOC," Moss said. "I think they do a really good job and have a really good program for the kids, especially since they are right there in the neighborhoods."

Neighborhood Outreach Connection currently has three locations, one on Hilton Head and two in Bluffton. But it has plans to expand to reach more low-income and in-need families, McNair said.

NOC will open another location at the southern end of the island in January, Sharma said, and is looking at some other locations in Bluffton and northern Beaufort County.

The group tailors its programs to each specific site to make sure they are reaching the community and have maximum success, Sharma said. For example, some sites like Bluffton House needed to address the digital divide between the schools and homes.

Others might need more emphasis on students and families who need to improve their English.

"No one knows the neighborhoods we are in better than us," Sharma said. "We have to adjust to meet the needs and priorities of that community."

At Bluffton House, the group is trying to figure out how to cut its program -- and the number of children it serves -- in half as it moves in to a single apartment. Several students said they hope they can still be a part of the Neighborhood Outreach Connection.

"NOC is a really good place to learn and get help, and I'm really doing a lot better in my classes," said Kevin Lopez, a fifth-grader at Red Cedar Elementary School. "I think it's a really bad idea that they have to move and squeeze because a lot of people come here to learn."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

Related content:

Nonprofit group granted temporary stay at Bluffton House, December 9, 2013

Nonproft being forced out of Bluffton apartments fights back, October 30, 2013

Nonprofit group negotiating to stay at Bluffton House, help at-risk families, August 16, 2013

Bluffton group that helps at-risk youth to lose home, August 2, 2013

Neighborhood Outreach Connection

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