NEO facility expansion means more opportunities for adult learning

PORTAGE — Nygel Robb returned to Neighbors' Educational Opportunities this week.  This time though, it wasn't as a student. It was as a success story. He told those attending an adult education orientation Tuesday morning his eight months at the facility turned his life around.

"I look at everybody here and I see myself," he said, telling them of the importance of participating in Work One workshops, of learning to create a resume and soaking in what the teachers have to tell them.

"I was headed down the wrong path. I was not in school. I didn't have a job. My aunt had kicked me out of the house. My uncle picked me up one day and dropped me off here," he said.

At 19, he's now got a job, a belief in himself and a future.

"They work one-on-one with you. They are about what your future will look like," he said about the staff.

NEO Executive Director Rebecca Reiner is hoping to turn out 300 or more Nygels this year at the new facility.

From PAE to NEO

Portage Adult Education has a long history, dating back to the 1960s when then-director Ken Woodruff offered a few night classes through the Portage Township Schools. It grew over the decades, finding a home in the old Garyton Elementary School on Central Avenue.

Portage Township Schools continued to run the adult education program until five years ago when officials there decided they could no longer afford to support the project.

NEO stepped in, applied and received a charter for New Vistas High School and continued to run the adult education program, which includes high school equivalency exam classes, English as a second language, basic skills, citizenship classes and more.

While the high school is open to all eligible students, its aim is to cater to those who had problems in their regular school or simply need a different style of education.

Then last year, the school district said it wanted its building back, making NEO scramble to find a facility. It did, buying the old Camelot Bowling Alley from the Fadel family, getting a loan and hiring contractors for the $4.3 million project.

This week the new facility opened its doors to 225 high school students and 371 adult education students, said Reiner. Of those 55 percent come from Porter County, 43 percent from Lake County and 2 percent for elsewhere.

NEO students

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    One of those high school students is Jasmine Tellez, 18, of Portage.

    She came to New Vistas after having "a lot of issues" with her regular school. Someone at the Porter County Juvenile Detention Center told her about New Vistas. That was her sophomore year of high school. Now she's a senior.

    "I don't think I would ever be in school if it wasn't for New Vistas. I know all the teachers and they all see potential in me. No one judges anyone," she said, adding she's planning on going into the Army after she graduates.

    Angelique Johnson, 17, of Gary, came to New Vistas when her former school shut down its high school program two years ago. She wanted to find something with smaller classes.

    "Teachers play a big part in students' success. They really help the students and are able to give them the attention," said Johnson, who is also Student Council vice president.

    "I like the atmosphere. It is a little more relaxed," she said.

    Future development

    The move into the new facility, said Reiner, offers an array of possibilities.

    She sees the facility as a "hub" of adult and continuing education and a place for lifelong learning.

    Reiner is working with one group to bring CNA classes to the facility, with others to bring commercial driving classes and pharmacy technician classes. There is conversation about making a wing of the building for health-care classes. They'll be partnering with Work One and Ivy Tech for some of the classes.

    "We have a list a mile long for possible uses," she said of the 70,000-square-foot building. Only half has been remodeled. The other half will be built out as the need arises for more classroom space or possibly bringing in retail businesses to serve students.

    "We don't want to reinvent the wheel, but we want to bring people in to provide services," she said.

    Reiner said they will be putting together an advisory committee with various groups and local businesses to help map out their future.

    They also are maintaining the sports complex portion of the building, which will continue to host everything from indoor hockey to roller derby. The goal, said Reiner, is to turn it into a student-run business to provide students with hands-on experiences.

    NEO also launched a capital campaign, hoping to raise $600,000 over the next two years to fully equip the kitchen and to finish renovating unoccupied spaces.