13 Dec, 2022
Next Step Learning Center (Next Step) is on an incredible mission to support youth and adults from low-income households in Oakland to re-engage in education, based on the belief in the resilience of the human spirit and in each person’s ability to learn and grow. The organization first opened its doors in 1993 in West Oakland when the Sisters of Holy Names saw discouraging literacy rates among women receiving welfare benefits in the neighborhood. What first began as a volunteer literacy program in 1993, has since expanded to include programs focused on supporting individuals to earn their GED, high school diploma, gain job skills, embark on sustaining careers, and even graduate college. Next Step works with Oaklanders ranging in age from 17-73 years old. Executive Director, Lisa Stringer says, “Part of our mission is that we believe in every individual’s ability to learn and grow. Our goal is to give everybody a 2nd, 3rd, or a 10th chance to learn and grow in an environment that is flexible and responsive to their individual needs. We want to fill a gap for people who are not able logistically, emotionally, or mentally to adapt to a more institutionalized setting.”
Stringer feels a deep connection to this work because of her own personal experience. “I know what it’s like to feel like you’ve missed the boat, and it’s too late,” Stringer explained that she left high school at 15 years old for a myriad of reasons that were beyond her control. “I see our students who have had a similar experience. They have so much brilliance, passion, and potential.” Through her individualized work at Next Step, Stringer has come to realize that people going through the program often grapple with a lot of grief. She emphasized that acknowledgement and understanding of this grief is important, “Many of our students who can’t read have been told they’ll never read. When people learn to read they get angry. They think, ‘Why couldn’t someone teach me this? That’s it?!’ It’s a journey of grief, reimagining, and empowerment as they realize they are a brilliant person and they have the capacity to do it.” In addition to this understanding, Stringer believes that “the secret sauce is love” for students to be successful in the program.
The services at Next Step are tailored to individual student interests and future plans through one-on-one tutoring and their college success program. For example, a student enrolled in the high school program who is interested in nursing will focus more on biology, while a student who wants to become an electrician, might be paired up with an electrician as a tutor. Additionally, Next Step added a Transition Coordinator to their team to support students in the college success program with identifying needs, setting goals, navigating logistics in the training program, and making connections to union apprenticeships. Stringer says, “We’re seeing our students who go to college and graduate see significant impacts in their income, happiness, and satisfaction. We hope to continue to move more people through that progression.”
If Next Step Learning Center had 3 wishes that could be granted today, Stringer says they would wish for:
Next Step recently celebrated the accomplishments of the center’s students with close to 110 graduates during the 2021-2022 school year. Interested in supporting and staying connected with Next Step? The program is always looking for tutors from the community who “make a profound difference in someone’s life and to open up the possibility of a better future for that person and their children. It can be tremendously rewarding to see someone grow in skills and self-confidence.” Get involved or donate. Want to learn more about Next Step Learning Center? Check out the awesome video they created (below) that includes student and staff testimonials.
Written and edited by Bonnie Look and Kate Ray.