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African Refugee Kids Succeed in Tucson After-school Program

November 10, 2008

Tucson, AZ – A Tucson after-school tutoring program aimed at low-income nine-to-twelve-year-olds has unexpectedly found itself attracting African refugee children. Susie Elliott, program manager of the Lutheran Church-run ASPIRE program, says the African kids arrive in the U.S. with English skills far below their grade levels, and don't get as much help as they need from cash-strapped public schools. She says some schools used to have three hours of daily English-learner instruction, but no longer.

"They get maybe about an hour of instruction a day, of immersion in English, at their schools; then they get put back into the regular school day. They've been tested; some of them are not even at kindergarten level."

Even aside from the reduced English instruction, Elliott says, public school teaching is geared mostly to Spanish speakers. With the help of two part-time teachers and several volunteers, Elliott has seen the African kids in her program make huge progress in learning English and doing their schoolwork.

One girl in Elliott's program gained two years of reading level in just four months.

"She's right now in sixth grade. She tested at second-grade level in English. She is now progressing to fourth-grade level."

Elliott credits no-nonsense, intensive tutoring, along with lots of personal attention.

As well as their lack of English skills, the African kids also face daunting cultural barriers. Elliott says explaining Halloween was a challenge.

"They didn't even know what Halloween was. They had no idea why we have this pumpkin, because pumpkins are something they eat; pumpkins are not used for recreation or for show."

Elliott's program, funded by the Lutheran Wheatridge Foundation, runs three hours after school each afternoon. It currently has 30 low-income students, about half of them African refugees. Because of its success, there is now a waiting list.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ