Last year, two twin sisters spent their mornings at preschool while their mom learned English.
Week after week, the girls, whose parents speak Karen, a language spoken in Burma, refused to say a word in any language. The classroom environment made them nervous, and they missed their mom.
But by the end of the semester, the girls were running to the daycare room, eager to talk to their friends in English. Now, they’re thriving in pre-K.
The twins’ mother was one of the inaugural students of the Family Literacy Initiative, a program started in 2011 by the Orange County Literacy Council.
The council is a nonprofit dedicated to reducing adult illiteracy in the area.
According to the council’s website, 15 percent of Orange County adults struggle to read at a high school reading level.
The Family Literacy Initiative aims to teach parents English so they can help build literacy for their children.
“There are parents who so badly want to help their kids in school, but don’t have the tools,” said Alice Denson, the executive director for the council.
Denson said 18 mothers are enrolled in the program. In addition to biweekly English classes, the mothers attend a weekly support group and workshop where they are guided through activities they can do with their children, like reading out loud or playing word games.
ESL students, like the ones who participate in the Family Literacy Initiative, make up the bulk of the 345 students enrolled in the council’s programs.
Until seven years ago, the council didn’t have formal ESL programs. Instead, it focused on native English-speakers who hadn’t received the necessary literacy skills in school.
But the demand for ESL instruction is higher than ever, reflecting significant demographic changes in the Chapel Hill area.
“Because of the University, we have people from almost any country that you could think of,” Denson said.
Students in the program meet at El Centro Hispano, a Spanish community center in Carrboro, because of the center’s experience with children.
“The kids are learning at the same time as their parents,” said Joy Turner, the council’s program director. “That’s a major benefit.”
While learning basic language skills, the children also learn to be comfortable in a school environment.
On Wednesday, a 1-year-old boy played with bubbles as his mom learned to schedule appointments in English in the room next door.
Only a few months ago, he would cry for the duration of his mom’s lesson.
But Teresa Atkins, the boy’s teacher, said now he’s happy to be in a classroom setting, which helps his mom focus during class.
“This is where we learn to get over our fears and anxieties,” she said.
“When we go to kindergarten, we’ll be all set.”
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