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Urban College presses on — in the Coard manner

Bob Coard, the late champion of poor people, devoted his life to building Boston’s own anti-poverty/community action agency into a formidable presence. Under his guidance, Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) reached out to every neighborhood, offering a hand-up to lower income residents with programs like Head Start, winter home heating assistance, neighborhood employment and job training centers, and foster grandparents programs.

ABCD became recognized locally for its comprehensive outreach programs that were efficiently managed and highly focused. An outgrowth of Lyndon Johnson’s hallmark “War on Poverty,” the agency became a national model for its success in helping people of modest means to rise out of poverty.

But the war on poverty was never a real war, Coard used to say, because there was never enough ammunition to root out poverty. “It was really a popgun war,” he would say.

As part of his extraordinary vision, Coard realized he could not simply rely on an infusion of federal and state funds to help the poor, but rather he would use government grants as a base for reaching out across the community for support. “You can give a man a fish, and feed him for a day,” he would say, “Or you can give a fishing rod, teach how to fish, and teach them how to feed the family themselves.”

ABCD celebrates its 50th year in business this year, and it’s likely there are very few families who have lived in Boston’s neighborhoods over these years who did not benefit from an ABCD program.

Part of Bob Coard’s vision was to create opportunities for advanced education for workers and clients of ABCD programs. As early as the 1970s, working with local junior colleges, ABCD designed an “Urban College program,” with college level courses that led to an associate’s degree. In 1993, ABCD was awarded a state charter for its own Urban College of Boston (UCB), which began operating as an independent, co-educational two- year, degree-granting junior college.

In the last academic year, some UCB 700 students were enrolled in course work leading to associate degrees in three fields: Early Childhood Education, Human Services Administration, and General Studies, along with 13 certificate programs and continuing education courses. Tuition is just $196 per credit hour, with half of the students receiving financial aid.

If there is any doubt that UCB is extraordinary, albeit untraditional, consider these statistics: 96 percent of students are women; 63 percent are working moms; 98 percent are working full time; 78 percent have annual incomes below $32,000; more than one-third speak English as a second language; 58 percent have been out of high school for more than 10 years; and 41 percent have lived on welfare at some time in their lives.

Last spring, when the college was threatened with loss of accreditation due to a major loss of federal funds, the community rallied.

There remains much work to be done to ensure a strong financial base for the college, But for now, fall classes will begin as planned. Registration will take place from Aug. 27 to Sept. 4 at college headquarters downtown in the eponymous Robert M. Coard Building, 178 Tremont St., across from the Boston Common Classes begin on September 4.

Bob Coard’s own war on poverty goes on, alive and well, in our city. And long may it continue.

– Ed Forry