ISR in the Community: En Nuestra Lengua

José Benkí teaches a class on sound in the literacy program. Photo courtesy of José Benkí.

José Benkí teaches a class on sound in the literacy program. Photo courtesy of José Benkí.

José Benkí and Teresa Satterfield speak Spanish at home with their two boys. They read books in Spanish, fix dinner in Spanish, and play games in Spanish. But when Angel goes to preschool, and Felix goes to second grade, their work and play are in English. And as the two boys age, they likely will have fewer and fewer opportunities to use Spanish outside the home in a meaningful way.

For many Spanish-speaking families in Ann Arbor and across the country, that’s just the way it is. Children and teens drop Spanish except for at home with their parents. Although they understand it and speak it, many can’t read or write well in their native tongue, so they lose the opportunity to become fully bilingual. Even worse, students who aren’t really literate in Spanish—who enter school unable to read or write—often struggle to become literate in English. It’s just one factor in the Latino achievement gap, Benkí says, but it’s a serious one.

In 2009, Benkí and Satterfield came up with an idea to change this. Both are linguists and faculty members at the University of Michigan, Benkí at the Institute for Social Research and Satterfield in the Department of Romance Languages & Literatures. What if, they thought, there was a Spanish literacy program in Ann Arbor for native speakers of Spanish, targeted at the years when children are first learning how to read and write? And what if the process for setting up such a program could be analyzed—and the results documented—in order to create a national model?

Benkí helps son Félix tackle homework. Photo courtesy of José Benkí.

Benkí helps son Félix tackle homework. Photo courtesy of José Benkí.

“We were looking for opportunities for our sons,” Benkí says, “but we were interested in the community, as well. And we saw a need and a research interest. What’s sufficient in terms of language exposure at home and formal academic exposure in a school in order for a person to be fully bilingual?”

Backed by about $18,000 in grants from the Ginsberg Center and the Department of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at U-M, Benkí and Satterfield pulled together a pilot program in the spring of 2010. They had imagined the literacy program would meet one day a week after school in the late afternoon or evening; that’s what most of the few programs they’d located around the country did. But when Sandra Núñez, their community liaison officer and an ESL tutor for the Ann Arbor Public Schools, polled likely participants, families said no—it had to be on Saturday.

Benkí and Satterfield were taken aback by the response. But they’ve come to believe that the Saturday morning time slot is integral to the program’s success. It lets them hold classes in Bach Elementary, an Ann Arbor school already attended by many of the city’s Latino children. The classes are in the morning, when kids are more alert. And the parents who work second jobs, a sizeable percentage in the Latino community, are better able to participate.

[pullquote]…they were hoping to attract 20 kids. When the doors opened, they got 50. “We said, ‘Whoa, what are we going to do?’” Benkí recalls.[/pullquote]

Before the first Saturday in 2010, Benkí and Satterfield waited with trepidation. There hadn’t been much time to publicize the pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade program, and they were hoping to attract 20 kids. When the doors opened, they got 50. “We said, ‘Whoa, what are we going to do!’” Benkí recalls, laughing. Interest hasn’t flagged since. Now into their second full year of fall and winter sessions, En Nuestra Lengua—In Our Language—has a full enrollment of 82 students, and a waiting list for pre-K.

Benkí meets with a group of parents. Photo courtesy of José Benkí.

Benkí meets with a group of parents. Photo courtesy of José Benkí.

In a typical two-and-a-half hour session, the teachers—specially recruited from the university and the community—help students read, do worksheets, and write stories. Parent volunteers bring snacks, lead activities, and read aloud. A visiting Latino musician might sing with the kids or an artist guide them in painting. And every couple of weeks, interested parents meet in a separate room to talk about issues they face as immigrants, such as how to navigate the American educational system and how to handle a parent-teacher conference.

For now, En Nuestra Lengua is free and Benkí and Satterfield plan to keep it that way. About $25,000 in grants from the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation and the National Center for Institutional Diversity at U-M will take the program through the 2011-2012 year. Some parents have offered to pay, Benkí says, but he and Satterfield want all children to have the same access, whether their parents are doctors or don’t have work documents. Current families have roots in 12 countries, including Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, Spain, and Cuba.

The literacy program has proven a rich opportunity for research. Benkí and Satterfield are publishing papers on methods to evaluate and place students in native language literacy programs, on community support of the Saturday morning language school model, and on the program’s success in achieving and maintaining Spanish literacy. “We have kids who are reading in Spanish at grade level in kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade,” Benkí says. “That’s not the way it was when we started.” Preliminary data from 2010 for students in the kindergarten and 1st grade classes also show a high correlation between Spanish literacy levels and the English literacy levels students are achieving in their elementary schools.

From this work, Benkí and Satterfield intend to develop a proven set of K-3rd grade curricula for communities to adopt nationwide. Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in the country, Benkí notes, and for the young to be less than fully literate in their native language, and possibly struggling with English, as well, is a tragic waste of resources and potential. “We don’t see it as either politically or financially viable to have vast bilingual immersion for the Latinos in this country,” Benkí says. “So we need some kind of solution for kids not to lose that cognitive development they started out with.”

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