Learning the language to help their children learn in school

Parent academy serves adults from across globe

East Kentwood High School science teacher Jeremy Gasper is on the Parent Academy Committee. From left, Thu Le, from Vietnam, and Pla Htoo, from Myanmar, listen while he speaks

Prabina Raya is happy her grandfather, Bhakat Dhugana, comes to her school, Bowen Elementary, on Thursday evenings to learn basic English. Prabina, her mother, brother, grandmother and Mr. Dhugana immigrated to the U.S. from Nepal two years ago.

While Prabina is already a leader in her fourth-grade class, rapidly learning to speak, read and write in English, she knows it’s harder for her mother and grandparents to pick up the language.

“My grandfather don’t know that much English and he don’t know writing. He only knows some words,” said Prabina, an English-language learner with still-developing skills herself.

But an English as a Second Language class, offered through the new KPS Parent Academy, is helping her grandfather learn new skills he can continue to develop. “Then, he can know the language and learn how to write and read,” she said.

While Prabina and other children played in a room designated for childcare, Dhugana and Kentwood parents from Myanmar (Burma), Vietnam, India and Thailand were busy in the school’s media center saying one- and two-syllable words with a clap in between syllables. Taught by ESL instructor Janice Borst, they learned the difference between the titles Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms., and read simple sentences like “Are the books on the desk?” “Yes, they are.”

Dar Paw, from Thailand, focuses on words on the projector

Helping Parents to Help Students

The academy is an opportunity for immigrant parents to learn English and other skills to help them be successful in the U.S. The program aims at meeting the needs of the 1,800 district students who are English-language learners by helping their parents. With students speaking more than 60 languages and representing 90 countries, Kentwood is the most diverse school district in Michigan, according to Niche, a website that analyzes and ranks school systems.

The district received a $110,000 grant from the Steelcase Foundation to be spread over two years to fund the academy. The current eight-week course is the second for the program, which began in November. Another may take place this summer or start again in the fall.

Kentwood ELL students make remarkable progress toward English proficiency, but often struggle to keep up with their age-peers in the regular classroom. When they go home, they have difficulty completing their homework and, often, there are adults in their home who struggle with the English language, according to administrators who applied for the grant.  The goal is to improve educational outcomes of ELL students, which will be measured through World-Class Instructional Design and Assessment (WIDA) scores, disciplinary reports and attendance.

“We have an issue in our district where the students possess more skills academically than their parents do and, because of that, the students don’t know where to go for help when they go home,” said Jeremy Gasper, a high school ELL science teacher and KPS Parent Academy Committee member who helps run the program. “What we’re trying to do is help build skills in parents that can allow them to sit at the dinner table and help their students with homework at the lowest levels, or just have discussions and help with increasing English skills.”

He also wants to help them learn to read and do math with their children — things all parents are asked to do, but for which certain skills are needed.

Thu Le, from Vietnam, takes part in the Kentwood Parent Academy

Language Skills Needed Most

In planning, staff members decided to first focus on English skills, Gasper said. The district initially discussed offering classes on life in the U.S., including school procedures, study skills, banking, shopping, Internet use, obtaining a driver’s license, pursuing citizenship, using public transportation, applying for a job. However, a meeting with local cultural group leaders indicated that learning the language is the biggest need in the community, and that eventually embedding in other topics would be the best approach.

“Right now, it’s just basic English, conversational, even down to letter sounds and putting together words and sentences,” Gasper said.

Gasper, who attends the Thursday sessions as a representative of the academy, said he’s seen parents’ skills developing firsthand.

“We’ve seen a lot of improvement,” he said. “It gets us excited because we feel like if we can get more people in the door we would be providing an even greater service. We are really working on getting people to get to our classes and get them signed up. We’ve got some plans to really expand this.”

Parents in the class practiced reading and speaking. “Grand Rapids is in Michigan,” they said, focusing carefully on each word.

“They have made some great strides in the way they are able to speak English the confidence they have, and it helps them in their day-to-day lives just navigating the U.S.,” Gasper said.

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio

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