By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Erika Rucker’s education career began by teaching a little boy how to tie his shoes and to read.
“I worked with him for about 15 to 20 minutes every afternoon,” Rucker recalled. “We pointed to the words, did phonic sounds. … By the end of the year, his mom sent me a thank-you note for working with him.”
Just those activities—reading, tying shoelaces—are skills a child will use throughout their lives, “which to me meant I’m going to have a meaningful impact on them forever, … no matter if they’re 5 or 75,” said Rucker, who is project manager for the Birmingham Regional Empowerment and Development Center (BREAD).
BREAD is an after-school program that provides enrichment, summer camp, and adult education opportunities for at-risk youth, their parents, and other community members. What happens during after-school hours can be as important for a child’s development as what happens in the classroom during the day, said Rucker.
“The school day is so rigorous now,” she explained. “So, you need programs like BREAD to say, ‘I notice that you like to draw, so you can be a graphic artist. Let’s try to do some sculpture.’ [It’s about] trying to make sure kids know they can do anything and putting things in their eyesight to show them that [opportunities are] out there.”
BREAD was originally known as the Bethel Community Learning Center, which was founded in 2003; the name was changed in 2010. The program served about 600 children in 2019 and aims to serve about 800 children this year. At BREAD, a staff of about 60, including after-school teachers and site directors, provide tutoring services at seven locations: Bethel Baptist Church, Glen Iris Elementary, Norwood Elementary, Martha Gaskins Elementary, Ossie-Ware Mitchell Middle, Putnam Middle, and Wilkerson Middle schools.
As project manager, Rucker manages all of the sites to ensure that each one meets established goals and follows the curriculum in place. Upon arrival at their respective sites “students get a snack and a break, then they do at least 30 minutes of homework followed by an activity for about an hour,” she explained.
Sessions take place at the elementary sites Monday through Friday, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., and at the middle schools three or four days a week, from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Though Rucker enjoys being project manager and overseeing all of the sites, she doesn’t get to work with the kids one-on-one as much as she would like.
“I subbed for multiple days last year, [working] with middle schoolers for three days,” she said. “They wanted to do food lab, so we made cupcakes. The first day, I found a recipe, had them look at the recipe, do the math, and measure and mix up their ingredients. … The next day, we made the cupcake molds. The third day, we put the cupcakes in the oven, let them cool off, and then decorated them.”
Rucker, 34, grew up in East Birmingham with her parents and older brother. She attended North Roebuck Elementary School, W.J. Christian K-8 School, and Ramsay High School. She graduated from Ramsay in 2003 and attended Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Ga. After her freshman year, she transferred to Lawson State Community College (LSCC), where she earned an associate degree in psychology. She went on to attend Auburn University in Auburn, Ala., where she also majored in psychology and did work study at an elementary school—an experience that led her to her love of education.
“I had a boy in my class who could not read, and this was one of the best schools [in Auburn],” Rucker said.
She continued working with after-school programs and enrichment programs as an undergraduate, as well as while doing graduate work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where she majored in public administration. She worked mainly as an after-school teacher for fifth graders in the BREAD program, then called Bethel Community Learning Center at Bethel Baptist Church in Pratt City, during her time at UAB. In 2009, she earned a master’s degree in public administration and was promoted to the position of adult education coordinator at BREAD (still called Bethel Community Learning Center at the time).
Making an Impact
“I established our adult education program, through which we offered GED classes and started a partnership with [LSCC] … that enabled our students to take the GED test for free at Lawson after attending several sessions with us,” said Rucker, who served as adult education coordinator until 2011, when the April 27 tornadoes ravaged much of Pratt City.
“That program was in place until we relocated to our current location at Bethel Baptist Church in Pratt City because our old building was destroyed. I stepped into the role of education coordinator because ours left,” she said. “At this point, we had two sites and were rebuilding because of the tornado. We had the site at Bethel and a site at Lewis Elementary School [in North Birmingham].”
Rucker has been widely recognized for her work with the BREAD program. She was named an After School Ambassador with the After School Alliance in 2015; Director of the Year by the Alabama Community Education Association in 2014; and became a board member of the Alabama Community Education Association, where she is currently president-elect.
Also, in February, students and administration at Wilkerson Middle School recognized her as one of their Unsung Heroes for Black History Month.
Rucker said she appreciates the many accolades but her focus remains on the students.
“If I don’t create experiences and access for kids in Birmingham, then they’ll never know that they can be engineers or get whatever jobs that are out there,” she said. “They’ll never know it [without] having that time in after-school.
“I want the kids in my programs to have access to the same things the kids in Auburn, Mountain Brook, and Hoover have access to,” she continued. “I want kids in Birmingham to have the same experiences, and I don’t feel money has anything to do with kids having the same access and opportunities. … I feel like this is what God called me to do.”