Laura Hernandez didn't know English when she started first grade at Hilton Head Island Elementary School for the Creative Arts, according to principal Gretchen Keefner.
Understandably, she struggled to keep up, especially in math.
Six years later, Hernandez, 11, is a shining example of a success story.
Now a sixth grader at Hilton Head Island Middle School, she transitions seamlessly between English and Spanish, is enrolled in the gifted and talented program and is in an advanced pre-algebra class. Her book smarts are complimented by a confident and polite demeanor well beyond her years.
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She said Saturday she credits her success to the five years of extra help she's received from the Neighborhood Outreach Connection, which started a learning center in her neighborhood five years ago, when Hernandez was a second grader.
She's also a student ambassador for the program and was chosen to stand at Hilton Head Mayor Drew Laughlin's side Saturday as he cut the ribbon at The Oaks Apartments for two new learning centers, housed in apartment units that volunteers transformed over the past three months. That brings the total to three centers at the complex.
Part-time coordinators and volunteers run morning and afternoon programs for moms and toddlers and children to age 11.
School children spend an hour and ten minutes after school each day working with tutors and teachers on homework and doing extra lessons.
"At first (NOC) was only Dr. Sharma and a few people," Hernandez said, referring to group founder Naren Sharma. "Now it's like the whole island."
Indeed, more than 100 members of the Hilton Head Rotary Club, high school students and teachers and residents of The Oaks attended the grand opening. Dozens of other residents stopped by.
Sharma, an economist who worked for the World Bank for more than 30 years, identified The Oaks as a place to start his education program because it is a low-income area that had a reputation for high crime. The program is funded through donations and grants.
"It's about empowerment," Sharma said. He said the group could have hired a contractor to renovate the two apartments but instead asked fathers and other residents to do the work
"We have all the skills we need right here."
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