By Becky Gailey
Martha Reik’s small village in the mountains of South Sudan had no school.
She couldn’t walk to schools further away because of the civil war ravaging the countryside. She couldn’t attend school and live with her brothers in Ethiopia — a canoe ride down the river and then a two-day walk away — because it was too expensive.
Instead, she stayed home and helped her parents work their farm.
It was not until she enrolled her own children at Arnold Elementary School in Lincoln years later that Reik had the opportunity to go to school herself.
“I don’t have a choice before because the war is very hard in Sudan,” Reik said. “I’m not sad before, but now I’m very sad because I get school now, and I know what little I had.”
Both of Reik’s brothers went on to graduate college, and one even earned a master’s degree. Reik wants her children to have such opportunities, ones that she never had.
“I am very happy here because my daughters can go to school,” she said.
Reik came to the United States in 1999, but between working the night shift at a meatpacking plant and raising six children with her husband, she has had few chances to learn English, let alone go to school. Reik and other parents like her are the reason Arnold Elementary is one of six schools in Lincoln Public Schools with Family Literacy Programs. [Literacy program seeks support.]
The Family Literacy class helps refugee and immigrant parents learn about the school system and how to be effective parents in the U.S., according to Leesa Kraeger, coordinator of Arnold’s Family Literacy program. This program is vital for Arnold because about 13 percent of its students come from homes where English is not the first language spoken.
“The overriding goal is to help parents understand that LPS is a partnership to help them help their children achieve their goals,” Kraeger said. “They already know how to function as parents and are educators of their children. They just don’t know the country.”
Every day during the school year, from 1:30 to 3:30, Reik and 13 other mothers with children in Arnold’s ELL—English Language Learners—classes come to Room 611 for class with Kraeger. They learn skills essential to dealing with the school system, such as how to identify and fill out basic forms or set up a parent-teacher conference.
“It’s really hard to lead someone where you’ve never been before,” Kraeger said.
Kraeger also brings in members of the community to talk to the mothers about skills essential to living in the U.S., in Nebraska and in Lincoln. Speakers have included firefighters, police officers, bankers, doctors and a variety of other experts that help Lincoln’s newest residents learn about the resources available to them. Although learning English is a goal of the program, Kraeger said, the primary aim is to help refugees learn how to navigate the school system and then other systems essential to living in America. She told one story of a mother who brought in cupcakes to celebrate because the night before she was able to call the electric company instead of having her second-grade daughter do it.
Zahra Alhirez has been learning English since she came to America from Iraq in 1999, but she said the Family Literacy classes have helped her learn vocabulary she might need in emergencies.
“Maybe one day I need help with pharmacy or doctor. Maybe someday I have problem and I need to speak English,” Alhirez said
She also said taking the class helps her help her children more.
“My son is very good with English, but sometimes my daughter needs help with homework,” Alhirez said. “Sometimes my children help me.”
Alhirez wants to practice her English, but she refuses to speak anything but Arabic at home because she is afraid her children will forget Arabic, and thus their culture. Four other Arabic-speaking mothers in the class expressed the same concern, saying that many of their children now speak better English than Arabic. Not only does this lead to a gap in communication, but it means the mothers are giving up their opportunity to practice English at home so that their children can learn Arabic.
Despite this and other obstacles, a survey done by LPS of three Family Literacy courses showed progress. The median score of all participants on an English language test increased after taking the class. The percentage of surveyed parents who read to their children every day increased from 32 percent to 50 percent. The average number of school visits a parent made in a year increased by 37 percent. These results are affecting more than 150 families and more than 450 students, said Peggy Newquist, Family Literacy specialist with LPS. Within weeks of the program starting, Newquist said principals began calling her about the increased presence of refugee and immigrant parents in their schools.
“We want them to feel comfortable in the school building and know they are welcome any time,” Newquist said. “In many places of the world you don’t go to school unless something bad has happened. It’s about reeducating them to think of this as a partnership.”
Kraeger believes the biggest successes can’t be measured in numbers. They’re on the more personal level.
She cited an incident that occurred at the end of last school year, when two mothers got up in front of an entire room of people and told the principal, in English, that they needed more translators at school events. When this happened, Kraeger said, many people cried because they were so happy that these two mothers transitioned from strangers afraid to look teachers in the eye, to parents active in their children’s’ school.
Samuel Reik, Martha’s husband, said Arnold’s ELL classes and Family Literacy program have helped his family.
“They do a good job completely,” he said. “They help the kids a lot. It’s a good school.”
And the children are not the only ones learning. In a survey of 76 parents taking Family Literacy courses, 24 of them—32 percent—had an education level of grade 6 or less. In a group of six women, two of them, Martha Reik and another mother from Iraq, had never been to school. Kraeger said several of the mothers aren’t just learning the English words, they are actually learning the subject.
When asked what her favorite subject in the class has been, Reik knew her answer instantly: “I start math. It’s difficult, but I’m trying.”
According to Patty Clements, the team leader of Arnold’s ELL teachers, the parents’ efforts to educate themselves directly impact their children.
“The children whose moms are in Family Literacy try really hard, harder than those students who are not,” Clements said. “They see their moms try, and they are so proud of them. The transformation in the mothers is amazing, and it can’t help but transfer down to the kids.”