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St. John’s gives homeless learners a second chance

Sky Rodriguez, 12, looks forward to summer school every day, but unlike many of her peers, she is there with her mother to get a leg up and learn the skills and subjects she needs to get a good job and a home of her own.

Rodriguez and her mother, Ebony Jones, who live in a homeless shelter at the Tilden Houses in Brooklyn, attend the Leadership and Career Academy at St. John's University.

The academy is part of a partnership with the city Homeless Services Department, which joins the After-School All-Stars of New York City, the city Housing Authority and St. John's University's School of Education, allowing families of limited means to take advantage of the Jamaica school's academic offerings while building their skills for the future.

"The No. 1 way we can ensure moms and children don't return to us is to make sure they have the best education available," said Homeless Services Department Commissioner Robert Hess, who visited St. John's last Thursday to tour the four-week program where children get athletic coaching and study with chemistry and robotics professors, and parents learn new skills in the economics and pharmacy departments. "I can't think of a better place than St. John's."

Nicole Isaacs, who attends the academy with her 11-year-old son, has been looking for a new job in an office or a hotel.

"Being part of the academy has been a great experience for me and the other parents," she said. "For those of us with medical problems, the pharmacy faculty has given us a better understanding of our conditions. For those of us having trouble with finances, the economics faculty has helped us manage our money."

Sky Rodriguez, 12, comes to St. John's every day from Brooklyn with her mother.

"Each day the knowledge is fresh in our minds and that will help us when we go back to our schools in the fall," she said.

Jones said her family of six had lost their Virginia home after she was badly injured in a car crash, her husband lost his job and her medical bills cleared out their savings. They moved to Brooklyn four months ago to be closer to their extended family and ended up in a shelter.

She, Sky, and her two younger daughters attend classes while her husband watches their son.

"It was like a whirlwind, losing everything," Jones said. "It's been really hard for the kids to go from a five-bedroom, three-bathroom home to a studio apartment."

Hess said the agency will spend $1 billion on shelters this year, money he believes is much better spent helping people live in their own homes.

"We have to figure out not only how to have children graduate from high school but graduate from college," Hess said. "We need to make sure moms get on employment tracks that really pay the bills."

Jones had prepared a poem to read for Hess and the other program participants, refuting the stereotypes that homeless people all live under bridges and use drugs, with the refrain, "Homeless is my situation, not who I am."

The academy has given Jones hope for the future.

"I cook, that's my thing," Jones said. "I want to do a culinary arts program and open a business."

Reach reporter Alex Christodoulides by e-mail at achristodoulides@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 155.

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