“Two, four, six, eight, 12..oh..ah…10,” says Thaw Nay, 6, asked by his teacher to count by twos. Nay stands amid a circle of seated children from southeast Asia.
Nay, whose native language is Karen, is learning the English language at the newest after-school program offered by the Pan-African Community Association (PACA), located at Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, 3222 S. 29th St.
There, southeast Asian students participate in a pilot program designed to help refugees overcome their biggest obstacle in school, the language barrier. Most participants in the program are Burmese and made their way to the U.S. via refugee camps in Thailand.
When they arrive, their English proficiency level is usually at zero, according to Nicole Acosta, school program coordinator at PACA. “They don’t know how to read or write in English at all,” Acosta said.
Not knowing English hinders students’ ability to adjust to life in the U.S., leaves them vulnerable to discrimination and makes it hard for them to navigate the educational system, according to Michael Grochowski, education program director at PACA.
Grochowski said the program, open to students from kindergarten up to high school, is initially focused on teaching students English, but they study other subjects as well.
PACA’s approach to teaching, according to Grochowski, is to build concepts and conversations around experiences that students are familiar with.
“We’ll have them talk about what it’s like to go to school, or to be a refugee,” Grochowski said.
PACA runs a similar program at 4063 N. 64th St., serving 30-50 students, mostly African refugees.
The newest location opened in April to serve the needs of southeast Asian refugees, most of whom live on the South Side and don’t have the means to travel to the 64th Street location, Acosta said.
The students’ families learned about the new program through word of mouth.
“Within their community word gets around, and all of the sudden they were coming,” Acosta said.
While the organization would like to serve more students at the South Side location (11 are now participating), more volunteer tutors are needed so students can receive crucial one-on-one instruction, according to Acosta. She takes the group a few times a week to local libraries or Journey House, where free tutoring is provided.
Grochowski said there is no age requirement for tutors. What’s important, he said, is for them to be role models for the students.
Acosta is amazed at how quickly the youngsters are learning English.
“The improvement from day one to today is huge,” Acosta said. As if to demonstrate, a student wearing a red sweater, with blue, yellow and white stripes, repeated the sentence, “I can walk across the park,” perfectly.