Celebrating 50 years of education at Good Counsel Learning Center

Sister Mary Donald Miller came to Our Lady of Good Counsel after having finished a Master’s degree in a reading specialist program. She was to begin teaching half time at Mankato State University, during the 1965-1966 school year. One night after her arrival, Sister Mary Donald and several of her fellow sisters were outside enjoying the evening when a member of the group asked, “What would you do with that building if it were yours?” while referencing a dormitory that had been vacated after some renovations were completed.

Without hesitation, Sister Mary Donald replied, “I’d start a learning center.”

Nothing more was said regarding Sister Mary Donald’s idea or possible other uses for the vacated dormitory during that particular evening. However, Sister Mary Donald was aware of both a local and national need for reading assistance. For instance, the National Education Association had produced a report illustrating the difficulties for some students with reading and math. As a result, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 was developed to ensure the foundation of a federal commitment to closing the achievement gap by ensuring all children had access to programs like Title 1. The very next morning when Sister Mary Donald asked if she was serious in her desire to start a learning center, she was both surprised and excited.

“I was absolutely serious,” said Sister Mary Donald. “What I didn’t know, I’d find out. I was told the building was mine. So, there I was, a 33-year-old sister with a whole building at my disposal. We immediately began pooling our resources while cleaning, polishing, pulling chairs from throughout campus and ordering card tables for our learning center.”

Sister Mary Donald Miller and two boys. Sister Mary Donald originally started the Good Counsel Learning Center.During the summer of 1967, the Good Counsel Learning Center opened its doors to 45 children for one hour a day, six days a week, for a total of six weeks. The following school year, instruction occurred in groups of twos and threes while keeping a Saturday tutoring option available to their participants. However, a closer inspection of their first year’s progress led them to re-think their instruction process. As a result, the second year moved into a one-on-one education format that has continued to be successful for 50 years.

In 1998, the learning center faced closure. However, Sister Mary Donald continued to stand by her earlier convictions. She knew children continued to struggle with reading and math. She also knew that those children still needed their services in 1998, as much as they had needed their services in the late 1960s. To resolve the question of what should be done, the Good Counsel leadership decided to ask three teachers from the Mankato School District to evaluate the learning center and to discuss their findings.

“They unanimously recommended that the learning center remain open,” said Sister Mary Donald. “They believed it was a treasure that needed to be maintained, suggesting a few new materials and to concentrate more on publicity. Each felt that the Good Counsel Learning Center was Mankato’s best kept secret, which was a view we needed to change.”

Although Sister Mary Donald had previously retired, she agreed to come back as a co-director with Sister Helen Robeck. The following year, Sister Joann McMahon became the director while Sister Mary Donald and Sister Helen continued on as teachers.

Sister Richarde and student work on their reading skills at the Good Counsel Learning Center on April 27, 2017.During Sister Joann McMahon’s term as director, the student demographic shifted to assisting refugee adults and their children. To accommodate this demographic, the Refugee Outreach Program was launched to address the needs of refugee women who lacked transportation or childcare. Sister Dorothy Zeller became the tenth director of the learning center in August 2014. The program continues with 100 students attending in 2016 and 130 students in 2017. Eighty percent of the adults who attend are women. Today, the growth of the learning center is largely through word of mouth.

“It’s not uncommon for a student to come to a session with a friend saying, ‘I have a new student for you,’” chuckled Sister Dorothy Zeller. “Many of our adults also go to the Lincoln Community Center for various classes. However, they also come to us because of the specialized one-on-one learning environment. Many [English as a second language] programs focus more on grammar, where we teach reading while focusing on phonics and words sounds, which assists with the clarity of speaking.”

In 2016, Sister Richarde Marie Wolf began to serve as the Refugee Outreach Program coordinator. Sister Richarde Marie makes connections between those seeking education despite constraints and matching those possible students with tutors, who volunteer to go into the home to teach one hour a day, twice a week. Currently, the Refugee Outreach Program serves eight women.

“Recently, one of the tutors within the Refugee Outreach Program took the family out for ice cream,” said Sister Richarde Marie Wolf. “This illustrates why this program is so important. It’s not just tutoring. We also place a strong emphasis on building relationships, which is another reason why the Good Counsel Learning Center has been so successful.”

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