McKee explores creating OCYL model across R.I.

McKee explores creating OCYL model across R.I.

Dave Lanoue, a volunteer at the Northern Rhode Island Food Pantry, receives a box of food donations from Lydia Stinnett, a Cumberland youth commissioner. The food, collected by members of the Mayor’s Office of Children, Youth and Learning’s Youth Commission, was loaded into two trucks on March 5 to be delivered to the food pantry. (Breeze photos by Robert Emerson)

CUMBERLAND – Just as he created Cumberland’s Office of Children, Youth & Learning when he was mayor here in 2007, Gov. Daniel McKee says he’s interested in exploring how to bring similar education offices to communities across the state.

McKee wants to explore how Rhode Island could leverage federal stimulus funds to allow communities to open their own municipal education offices similar to OCYL.

“One of the governor’s top priorities is getting teachers and students back into the classroom safely, but there is no denying that Rhode Island must also focus on proactively addressing the COVID-19 learning loss that so many students have experienced,” said Andrea Palagi, McKee’s communications director. “In Cumberland, the OCYL provides young people with year-round learning opportunities that go beyond the standard school day in areas like science, art, math, technology, literacy and more. (McKee) believes municipal education offices can help communities bridge the learning gap caused by this pandemic.”

Asked about the benefits of an office such as OCYL, McKee believes that “fostering a comprehensive and inclusive learning environment for young people is a benefit to the community at large,” which is something he prioritized while he was mayor, Palagi said. “The OCYL allows the entire community to become engaged in the education and welfare of its young people.”

OCYL, located at the Cumberland Monastery, 1464 Diamond Hill Road, is an education center offering year-round educational opportunities for youth. Programs are divided into three major initiatives: Early childhood education, for children up to 5 years old; the STEAM shop, for grades K-9; and backpack to briefcase, for grades 7-12.

“All of our programs have intentional content for students,” Liz Lemire White, director of OCYL, told The Breeze, adding that participating in OCYL also provides a real connection to the community. “The underlying goal (of OCYL) is to be here for what the community needs.”

Over the years, Lemire White said, staff has had inquiries from other communities, such as North Providence and Middletown, about how the OCYL works. She said her message to municipalities is to first figure out what its communities’ wants and needs are. “Some communities could offer something similar to this and also offer adult education,” she said, noting that their staff is too small right now to offer adult ed programs.

The office, which is a department of the town of Cumberland, receives operational and administrative funding and support by the town, while programs are paid for through sign-up fees, sponsorships, grants, and donations. OCYL offers financial aid to qualifying Cumberland residents.

Staff at OCYL “believe that the out-of-school time hours and preschool years provide an invaluable opportunity for each child to engage and explore in their own learning through unique, enriching educational programs,” states its website. On average (not during the pandemic), she noted, they’ll serve approximately 750-800 students per year, 400 children during the summer, and offer 1,500 classes. While programs are open to youth outside of Cumberland, she said that they tend to fill up with Cumberland students very quickly.

The pandemic has put some programs on hold, but last summer they were able to offer summer camp, following health and safety guidelines, and in the fall they were able to bring preschoolers back, Lemire White noted. “It felt good to bring the kids back,” she said.

Looking to the future, she said they’d like to acquire more classroom space. Staff also hope to grow a new free college advising initiative and launch the Our Minds Matter initiative, she said.

Our Minds Matter will be a mental health program for middle school students, hopefully starting at McCourt Middle School and expanding to North Cumberland Middle School, she said. Working with partnering agencies, it will provide students with access to resources and trusted adults and will allow them to express how they’re feeling through fun, low-risk creative arts experiences.

OCYL also runs the Cumberland Youth Commission, a year-round program for teens interested in community service. On March 5, the Commission loaded up cars with bags and boxes of food donations they collected for the Northern Rhode Island Food Pantry in Cumberland.

Teens collected 30 to 40 grocery bags’ worth of food, not including a dozen boxes of food donations from Dave’s Market, said Jamie Droste, K-12 program coordinator at OCYL. “It surprised the kids how successful it was,” she said. “We just had a real outpouring of support.” The teens, having read about increased activity at the NRI Food Pantry due to the pandemic in an article in The Breeze, wanted to help, Droste said, so they reached out to officials at the food pantry who gave them a list of foods they needed.

One of the Youth Commission members, Lydia Stinnett, canvassed her neighborhood with her mom, dropping off flyers to let people know they could leave a bag of food outside their door on a specific date, Droste said. She noted they ended up filling two station wagons with food. “It was a really tremendous show of support from the community,” she said.

Stinnett, a 16-year-old Cumberland resident, told The Breeze that she’s really happy with the outcome of the food drive, noting that the drive is important because everyone deserves to have enough food to eat.

The group’s next initiative is to create and provide small container gardens for senior citizens who are food insecure. Droste said they are looking for donations of clean 5-gallon buckets to serve as the container gardens, as well as soil and seeds for tomato and zucchini plants. Those interested in supporting the project can email jdroste@cumberlandri.org .

Droste added that the Youth Commission is always looking for new members.

To learn more about OCYL, visit www.cumberlandri.org/office-of-children-youth-and-learning .

David Lanoue packs one of two vehicles with food, collected by the Cumberland Youth Commission, to be donated to the Northern Rhode Island Food Pantry in Cumberland on March 5.

Comments

I would like to welcome the State of Rhode Island to the Governor’s Academy Charter School coming to a town near you. As many have said before Dan, fix the current problem, don’t create a new one like the one you created in Cumberland!

I would prefer that the Governor address the fiscal health of this state rather than trying to advance his Charter school agenda. Budget deficits and high taxes need to be addressed and he should devote all of his attention to that first.