Imagine trying to communicate with your child’s teacher in a foreign language, or trying to help your child with homework in a foreign language.
Those scenarios are reality for hundreds of immigrant Omaha families with children in Learning Community schools, and a reality that the Learning Community Center of South Omaha, which just opened this past September on 23rd and M Streets, is working to make more manageable.
Ted Stillwell, C.E.O. of the Learning Community as well as a former teacher, illustrated one of the problems that arise when such a language gap exists: “When I taught I had kids that understood English very well and parents that didn’t...the kids then had a pretty big advantage if they could tell you [the parents] what was going on in school and the parents couldn’t talk to the school nurse or principal and they had to get everything through the student.”
“Imagine if you are in middle school and it’s up to you to convey what’s going on in school,” Stillwell deadpanned.
And thus the reason the crux of the Center’s focus is concerned with teaching what the Learning Community calls “Family Literacy,” a broad term which encompasses English lessons, computer knowledge, parenting skills such as reading to children at night, and strategies for communicating with school teachers and administrators.
The Center’s origins stem from the same 2007 Unicameral bill that established the Learning Community, which also mandated the creation of elementary learning centers that would provide parents with the resources needed to help their children’s scholastic achievement -- on what exact resources to provide at said learning centers, however, the bill remained quite ambiguous.
The bill “is very broad about what you can do at an elementary learning center,” Stillwell said. “You could run computer classes, you could run G.E.D. classes, you could do after-school math...there was a list of seventeen or eighteen suggestions from the legislature.”
After a study by the Learning Community Coordinating Council -- the eighteen-member governing body of the Learning Community -- it was determined that what was most needed was a South Omaha center that would empower immigrant parents to become more involved with their child’s education.
“The idea is if you can better help the parents and the adults who are working with these very young children it’s going to affect the children’s reading and literacy skills,” Stillwell explained.
On April 24, 2012, the Center began operating out of the Juan Diego Center on South 31st Street with eighteen families drawn from Indian Hills and Gomez Heritage Elementary Schools. The progress of those families was evaluated by the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, and although their official results won’t be published until late October or November of this year, Anne O’Hara, Program Director of the South Omaha Community Learning Center, points to a 100 percent Parent-Teacher Conference participation rate among those eighteen families as signs that the Center’s efforts are working.
Another indication of the program’s success is its growth from 80 families at the Juan Diego Center to 170 families drawn from eleven elementary schools at the new building, which used to house the South Omaha Branch Library and was renovated this past summer.
In order to qualify for enrollment a family must reside in the Learning Community’s Subdistrict 5 and have a child aged four to seven.
“We have walk-ins everyday,” O’Hara said. “We haven’t had to do much recruitment. We did some this summer, but we kind of stopped. I think we could easily find 500 families if we looked for them...I know that very soon we are going to have to start turning families away. But we have for the most part stopped recruitment because people have been bringing their families and friends in. By the middle of this month [October] we’ll be full. We’ll max out at about 180 families in this building.”
“Once they’re in the door they get excited, they want to stay,” she concluded.
Which brings about the question -- what next? Already in the works is a North Omaha Center, which will focus less on English lessons but will retain a large portion of the “Family Literacy” curriculum, and Stillwell hopes that eventually there will be “satellite” centers all around the city that can function as “smaller versions” of the program.
Still, it was clear from my visit to the South Omaha Center that the families who the program is benefitting now are grateful. Said Sylvia Dorres as she walked out, kid in tow, “I like talking in English...it’s for my children.