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Student Well-Being

New Breed of After-School Programs Embrace English-Learners

By Corey Mitchell — March 10, 2020 6 min read
Students, from left to right, Deluxe Badesi, Jima Munanga, and Oliver Alimasi play back the music tracks they created in the electro hip-hop class in an after-school program for English-language learners at Burlington High School in Vermont.
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When the Burlington, Vt., schools and the University of Vermont sought out ways to connect newcomer English-learner students with aspiring English-learner teachers, both groups knew what they didn’t want: a program focused solely on learning English.

"[What we] didn’t want was for the high school students to think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to have another hour of something I just had for the last eight hours,’” said Cynthia Reyes, an associate professor at the University of Vermont College of Education and Social Services. “Speaking another language and being immersed in another culture for the whole day can be exhausting.”

With those thoughts in mind, the school district and university last year began the Collaborative Literacy Initiative, an after-school program that pairs English-learners from Burlington High School and undergraduate teaching majors with the goal of helping students improve their English skills—and much more.

The aspiring teachers enrolled in Reyes’ class meet with their partners—native speakers of Nepali, Swahili, French Kirundi, Somali, Vietnamese, and other languages—to review homework assignments, discuss the ins and outs of applying to college, and even talk about video games, dinner recipes, and current events.

“We saw students in the class who wouldn’t speak at the beginning, who at the end had found sort of a newfound confidence,” said Sheryl Haiduck, who oversees expanded-learning programs at Burlington High and is a former English-as-a-second-language teacher.

After-school “programs are really ideal opportunities for English-language-learner youths to develop their literacy skills,” said Heidi Ham, the vice president of programs and strategy at the National Afterschool Association. “We can make learning fun, and we can really provide supportive environments.”

A smattering of school districts and nonprofits around the country, including Charlotte and Chicago, have gotten the same message.

Like Burlington, they offer out-of-school programming designed specifically for English-learners. The programs vary in size and approach, but share one goal: building connections for students while developing their English skills.

Building Connections

Roughly 15 percent of students in the Burlington schools are classified as English-learners. Nepali is the most common language for English-learners in Vermont; it’s just one of four states where Spanish isn’t the most-used language among English-learner students, federal data show.

“A lot of our new Americans feel a bit siloed; they’re only with other [English-learner] students, and then they go home with their families,” Haiduck said. “I really want our English-learner students to feel and be a part of the wider community.”

As part of the program, the English-learner students earn service-learning hours, “because they were teaching my students how to become teachers,” Reyes said. “It’s a way for both groups to gain experience learning from each other.”

Encouraged by their partnership with the University of Vermont, the Burlington school system this year expanded its own after-school offerings for English-learners.

This past fall, the district began a “reading buddies” program where high school English-learners connect with elementary-age English-learners to work on literacy skills and an electro hip-hop class where most of the participants are English-learner students.

A theater program for English-learner students, where they would put on mini-plays based on popular children’s books for elementary school students, is also in the works.

“I just see it as a really exciting way to rethink about the time that we spend after school and what we’re doing and who we’re doing it for and how we can meet their needs,” said Christy Gallese, the director of expanded learning opportunities for the Burlington schools.

‘It’s Like Family’

Hundreds of miles south of Burlington, in Charlotte, N.C., ourBRIDGE for KIDS, an after-school program for English-learner and refugee children, serves kindergarten through 7th grade students on the city’s east side, providing English lessons, homework help, and made-from-scratch meals.

The program serves 150 students during the school year and 200 during the summer on a 230-acre campus where students take nature walks, fish, and harvest fruits and vegetables from their community garden.

“Every child should have a period where they are just allowed to be kids … that in-between world, a bridge between their home country and the United States,” said Sil Ganzó, the founder and executive director of ourBRIDGE.

“They come in, they are in a new house, they go to a new school, it’s a new language, a new culture. It’s shocking,” she said. “Just having that transition—it’s so, so, so important for their emotional, mental, and physical health.”

Prasant Bhujel, a 7th grader, who moved to the United States from Nepal before his first birthday, enrolled in the program in kindergarten.

“They’ve taught me a lot,” said Prasant, an aspiring astrologist, engineer, and professional basketball player. “It helps kids, it helps parents ... It’s like family.”

With a commitment to hiring staff that reflect the students they serve, ourBRIDGE recruited in the city’s markets and churches, seeking out refugees and immigrants with teaching experience or college degrees; half the staff are refugees or first-generation immigrants themselves, said Ganzó.

“We were having diversity and inclusion workshops, but we realized that we weren’t really doing the work to embed that into our culture everyday,” Ganzó said.

To reach that goal, ourBRIDGE created positions that do not require English proficiency and offers translated materials for families in nine languages.

“We want the families to feel safe,” Ganzó said. “We want them to be happy. Representation matters.”

‘No Judgment’ Zones

Halfway across the country, the Chicago public school district offers twice-per-week after-school support programs for English-learners in schools across the city, providing the students two hours of additional time every week with teachers.

The After-School English Learner Tutoring Program supports more than 5,000 English-learners, with many sites also offering athletic or arts enrichment for students.

“There are opportunities to use English without judgment,” said Jorge Macias, the chief of language and cultural education for the Chicago schools.

Sofia Rico attends the after-school sessions at the Calmeca Academy of Fine Arts and Dual Language, a prekindergarten through 8th grade school. The 6th grader, a native Spanish speaker, said she enjoys the science experiments and the attentive tutors that listen to her and explain topics thoroughly.

“It helps me with my vocabulary,” Sofia said.

At Calmeca Academy, the arts-focused, after-school program also allows students to participate in choir, band, and mariachi clubs—and other activities that allow them to connect with their heritage.

The citywide English-learner-only program expanded to 185 schools this school year, up from 73 in 2016, to meet rising demand.

Current and former English-learners represent nearly a third of the students in Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district.

The work is part of a districtwide effort to not only boost English proficiency, but better support all English-learners, Macias said.

Helping English-learners feel valued and comfortable is important, said Reyes, the University of Vermont professor. She’s also a former bilingual teacher in the Chicago Public Schools.

The purpose of these efforts is not to develop “the kind of program where you go in to fix students,” she added, “but to go in and to really appreciate the linguistic resources they have and try to understand who they are, what aspirations they have.”

Coverage of afterschool learning opportunities is supported in part by a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2020 edition of Education Week as After-School Programs Embrace English-Learners

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