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Reaching Out: BU-Chelsea program helps immigrants with English, and life


This week, BU Today presents “Reaching Out,” a five-part series on the many ways that the Boston University community works to ease the hardships of immigrants and refugees in the Boston area.

Griselda Madronero has just finished work—boxing food on the late night shift at a bread factory in Chelsea. It’s 7 a.m. and by 8:30, she’s sitting in a classroom at Chelsea’s John Silber Early Learning Center, sounding out words in English. “Enemy,” she says, “friends,” and a new one today: “pose.” The class is one of several in the Intergenerational Literacy Program, an enduring component of a two-decade collaboration between the Chelsea Public Schools and Boston University.

Founded by Jeanne Paratore, a School of Education associate professor, as part of the Boston University/Chelsea Partnership—where BU educators helped rebuild the Chelsea public education curricula and managed the school system—the program is designed to teach English language literacy skills to entire families, children and parents. It usually serves between 75 and 90 families at any one time, and over the years has helped equip more than 2,400 families with the reading skills needed for life in a new country.

“I never spoke English before I came here,” says Madronero, a native of Colombia, who wears her long black hair pulled back in a ponytail. “I’d say ‘Hi.’ Now I can write notes to my kids’ teacher.”

Across the hall, literacy program director Barbara Krol-Sinclair speaks rapidly in Spanish, fielding phone calls from people anxious to enroll in the program. One caller has lived in Chelsea for three years, the other for six. Neither speaks English.

Krol-Sinclair, whose small office is piled high with books and binders, hangs up and adds their names to the Intergenerational Literacy Program waiting list, already more than 300 people long.

“The Chelsea Public Schools has the highest percentage of students of any school district in the state that speak a first language other than English,” says Krol-Sinclair, who is also an SED instructor. “More than 84 percent this past year. It also has the highest percentage of students who are low income of any public school district in the state—90.8 percent.”

Morning adult classes are taught by two teachers, usually SED graduate students, and preschool classes are taught by Chelsea teachers and students from Chelsea High School. Until babies can sit up on their own, they stay in car seats beside their mothers. Roughly 80 percent of the students are women.

Madronero works her way through the young adult book Seedfolks, about a nine-year-old Vietnamese girl who plants six lima bean seeds in memory of her father. The adult students’ progress is guided by group leaders, including Jack Flagler (COM’11), who saw the work-study job posted online a year ago.

“I have a chance to really get to know the adults and kids in this program,” says Flagler. “In such small groups, you develop a relationship with them. You get to learn about their lives, and help them work through each word until they get it.”

The program, developed in collaboration with 17 community organizations, focuses on practical literacy, teaching things like how to understand job applications, newspaper articles, citizenship materials, and financial forms. Classroom discussions also cover day-to-day living issues such as fire safety, crime prevention, lead paint, and even trash day.

While an adult literacy class is going on in one classroom, down the hall preschoolers are sprinkling glitter onto star-shaped paper and older children are working with paper mâché. After arts and crafts, the preschoolers sit on the carpet or on the tutors’ laps to read a book about starfish. The teacher asks questions as she goes along, testing the children’s comprehension.

Annemarie and Edisa Kamara, ages three and five, didn’t speak to anyone when they first arrived in the program. Their first language was not English, but Kirundi, a Bantu language spoken in Tanzania and Congo-Kinshasa. Now, they rush to greet Samantha Rick (CAS’12), one of eight BU students who tutor adults and children, the moment she walks through the door.

“Much of what we do has to do with children’s learning,” says Krol-Sinclair. “It’s about literacy, and also about supporting parents as their children’s first teachers. It’s especially tough for parents when they come to this country—their children learn English so much faster than they do, so how do you help your child with homework?”

She says the program strives to help parents support and monitor their children, even when they don’t understand the work themselves. Parents work on exercises that let them practice setting up meetings with teachers, interacting with health care providers, and monitoring their kids in the community.

At the same time, Krol-Sinclair says, the staff steers away from “teaching parents how to be parents, or what is the one right way to work with their kids.”

Catherine Rodriguez (CAS’14) used to be one of those kids, and she later worked as a tutor in the elementary-age classroom. Rodriguez and her older sister were born in Puerto Rico; Catherine was a baby when her mother enrolled in the program.

“When my mom first came to this country, she didn’t know any English, and she was alone with the two of us,” she recalls.

That was in 1997—in 2010 Rodriguez graduated from Chelsea High School as class valedictorian. She is now an English major at BU.

“I’m sure if my mother wasn’t in the program, she would have found a way to learn English,” says Rodriguez, who speaks Spanish when she’s home. “Now she’s able to have a conversation, and do all the English-speaking things she needs to do, like go to the doctor’s. The program really helped her get used to life here.”

To learn more about the Intergenerational Literacy Program, contact Jeanne Paratore at jparator@bu.edu or Barbara Krol-Sinclair at babaras@bu.edu. To get involved in other literacy programs, visit the BU Community Service Center for more information.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter @kcornuel.

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