BOYLE HEIGHTS : PUENTE Center Welcomes Growth

The parking lot of the PUENTE Learning Center has been turned into a field of dirt, leaving students and staff to scrounge for parking spaces on the streets. But founder Sister Jennie Lechtenberg is all smiles.

The inconveniences are a small sacrifice while workers build PUENTE's permanent home, a two-story, 40,000-square-foot structure that will help expand enrollment at the nonprofit learning center and enhance its programs. The new building is scheduled to open in September.

PUENTE (People United to Enrich the Neighborhood Through Education) began in 1985 as a tutoring effort using space borrowed from the Community Services Organization. It has grown and moved several times, most recently to the current site at 501 S. Boyle Ave. As construction takes place on the former parking lot, classes are held in trailers.

"We've been working toward this and developing programs, working from school benches to modular rooms," Lechtenberg says. "It is very exciting to know that this is it."

Two years ago, Lechtenberg, her staff and the board of directors set off on an ambitious campaign to raise $9.5 million--all in private funds--to build the center. They have raised $7.1 million so far and hope to have the rest by the end of this year.

Lechtenberg sees it as her mission to enrich the people who need it the most because of poverty, a lack of job skills and little education.

"Poor people should have the very best, otherwise they don't have a way to get out of the situation," she said. "People say the economy's so bad, but we can begin to use the tools that are there and train people, or the economy's going to get worse."

The Richard and Jill Riordan Foundation bought the two-acre property for the PUENTE Learning Center for $2.1 million, and Lechtenberg intends to pay it back.

For now, the construction of the cantilever-designed building, which will have translucent walls and roof to allow sunshine to light the classrooms with less electricity, has been the focus of her attention.

PUENTE, with 1,400 students and 130 computers, uses a concept created by Lechtenberg that has been hailed throughout the world to teach literacy and job skills. The center brings in whole families to learn together. Adults learn to read, which encourages their children to learn as well.

Toddlers work on computers, as do high school students and senior citizens. The center is open from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Last year, with the donation from the Arco Foundation of $700,000 and a former Arco gas station that burned in the 1992 riots, PUENTE opened a satellite center at 10000 S. Western Ave. in South-Central Los Angeles.

It started a new program, called Distance Learning, that enables students at the site to learn from interactive computer programs. Lechtenberg plans to expand that program once the new center is completed in September.

PUENTE also expects the new center to allow for a larger enrollment, from the current 1,400 students a day to 2,500. The center will also expand the children's area from its two-classroom trailer to two large classrooms, a computer lab and an outdoor playground.

Architect Stephen Woolley said he designed the building to meet future growth and technological needs, such as allowing room under the floors for cabling.

"I think the building is a symbol of what PUENTE is," Woolley said. "One of the reasons that PUENTE is such a success is because of Sister Jennie. When there's a need, Sister Jennie finds a way to fulfill that need."

Development director Paul R. Millman said one of the reasons the capital campaign has been so successful is because contributors are assured that the money they donate will go toward the programs to which they were intended. The program also undergoes a yearly audit to ensure accountability.

Last week, workers were pouring concrete for the elevator shaft as bulldozers moved hills of dirt. Students watched the activity through a square opening in a construction wall.

"We've really touched the lives of thousands of people," Lechtenberg said, estimating that 10,000 students of all ages have passed through PUENTE's doors through the years. She plans to open the center to community and cultural events to continue her mission of improving the education of people on the Eastside.

She also hopes to contract with more local businesses to educate their work force, such as the agreements PUENTE has with Gene's Plating and the Los Angeles Times mail room.

"This is a source of revenue that is in keeping with what we're about," Lechtenberg said.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World