Imagine entering a school where you don’t speak the language and you don’t know the culture. It’s an experience shared by nearly 4.4 million students in the United States. Slightly more than 9 percent of all students in U.S. public schools are enrolled in English language learning programs, according to the 2013 Digest of Education Statistics.
Many of them get very little time to speak and practice the new language. The national average for English language learners is only a minute-and-a-half of classroom talk time, according to an Afterschool Alliance brief on English learning.
A Charlotte, N.C., nonprofit afterschool program, OurBridge, steps into the gap, providing direct instruction along with fun activities for interaction and practice.
Founder Silvia Ganzo sees kids who are silent in school come alive after school.
“The best way for the kids to learn is hands on —doing, feeling, seeing, going,”she said.
A strength of OST programs like OurBridge is that they are able to provide a low-pressure environment in which kids can feel comfortable experimenting with the new language.
When kids carve Halloween pumpkins at OurBridge, they estimate and measure circumference and play with counting and sorting the seeds.
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When they recently baked apple cinnamon, peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies, they learned fractions and units of measurement while putting ingredients together.
The nonprofit serves 72 children from four elementary schools, Ganzo said. The children come from 18 nations, including Mexico, Honduras, Nepal, Burma and Bhutan.
Ganzo, a native of Argentina, founded OurBridge after working for a tutoring company that ended its afterschool program. She received funding through a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant in August.
Literacy coordinator Linda Lang assesses children’s English proficiency when they arrive in the program. She works one-on-one with those who are new and does small group work with others.
“At school, they don’t get the one-on-one that they need,”Ganzo said. “Some of the kids have just arrived in the country over the summer. “We have a huge range of English proficiency.”
Research shows that several strategies support language acquisition when used alongside each other, according to the Afterschool Alliance brief on language in afterschool programs.
Kids need direct instruction, time to practice the language, “scaffolding”during instruction, parent and community engagement and cultural knowledge.
Kids at OurBridge spend 20 minutes each day getting homework help and 20 minutes reading. Then they turn to a daily hands-on project, which can be science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related.
Kids take field trips to locations such as the library, museums, local parks and fire stations, adding to their understanding of American culture. Art and dance classes are also offered.
“We take the kids out in the community for some volunteering as well,”Ganzo said.
OurBridge is active in the community. Along with five other local organizations it sponsored a festival in honor of World Refugee Day. The festival included traditional dances and songs, a citizenship trivia game and free henna demonstrations.
Engaging children and families in the community helps them integrate, as well as providing language-learning opportunities. It creates a bridge between their own culture and the new one.