Suffolk University President Margaret McKenna has always believed that lives are improved through access to educational opportunity. It’s something she learned growing up in the hardscrabble city of Central Falls, R.I., where her father, mother, and aunt all spent their careers teaching in the public schools.

Many of their students were immigrants whose first language was not English and who did not have the advantages of peers in more affluent communities.

“I’ve always believed that education is the way out of poverty,” McKenna said. “There’s no question that kids in Central Falls have the ability. The only thing between them and success is support.”

The McKenna Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research in Central Falls will provide that critical support. The city recently held a groundbreaking ceremony for the new McKenna Center. Margaret McKenna made a gift to name the center in honor of her late parents, Mary and Joe McKenna.

That gift and other support will allow the city to transform a blighted building across the street from Central Falls High School into a hub of educational activity, research, and professional development.

The McKenna Center will bring aspiring teachers together with young Central Falls students to create tutoring, mentoring, and research opportunities. It’s a place where students from Rhode Island College, who are studying to be teachers, will live rent free. In return, they will spend time tutoring Central Falls students while developing research on teaching practices that promote student achievement and well-being.

Central Falls, a city of 19,000, which was pushed into bankruptcy in 2011 by the economic recession and foreclosure crisis, is seeing a turnaround in its educational system, with improving test scores and surging graduation rates. McKenna said she had been reading about what had happened to the city and its school system and wanted to help with recovery efforts.

“My sister and I were talking about something we could do to honor our parents,” she said.

McKenna called Central Falls Mayor James Diossa more than a year ago to offer help, particularly in the area of teaching and learning.

“He told me about this effort to buy a building directly across from the high school where my father taught,” McKenna said. “They were trying to buy it and turn it into a center, and they asked if I would be interested in supporting that.”

McKenna’s father Joe taught high school English and civics in Central Falls before becoming a junior high principal and later acting superintendent of schools. Her mother, Mary, taught kindergarten and first grade in the school system. Her aunt, Agnes McKenna, taught in the Central Falls school system for 50 years. Together they contributed more than 100 years to the school system.

But Central Falls is more than where her family taught, McKenna said. “This is where we grew up. My family was involved not just in the school system but in every part of the city.”

So supporting a new center focused on educating young people in that city made perfect sense.

“I think that it’s really been shown that with the right kind of attention and support, school systems that are poor and are in urban districts can do the right thing by kids,” McKenna said. “To be able to give kids that opportunity is for my whole family exactly the kind of thing that we’re committed to – to give these kids hope. My parents would be proud.”

Central Falls Mayor Diossa said the McKenna Center represents “a new chapter of hope, innovation, and partnerships” for Central Falls.

“Our city has been through difficult times in the recent past, and to see a worn-out eyesore converted into a first-of-its kind tutoring center serves as a beacon of the Central Falls transformation,” Diossa said. “I am truly grateful to President McKenna and her family for their unwavering support of the children and families in Central Falls."