Education in any school district hinges on giving students the best possible opportunities to learn. For some invested Newton school and community members, they saw an opportunity to provide that for a specific group of parents recently as well.
Helping welcome back students at Sunset Elementary to start the school year, Trinity Heights United Methodist Church Pastor Donna Voteau and other volunteers from the church (a regular community partner of Sunset) noticed something. While offering ice cream to parents and students as they familiarized themselves with the school following the first day of classes, Voteau said she became aware of a number of parents speaking Spanish and the children translating and explaining the classroom situation for them.
As a former English as a Second Language teacher while at seminary, Voteau noted she felt there was something she and Trinity Heights could do to help those parents. Getting together with Sunset Elementary principal Debbie Watson and two local ESL teachers (Cheryl Nottingham and Ann Walker), the idea of putting on an ESL class for adults was born. That program was officially launched Jan. 8, 2017, with sessions held from 3 to 4:30 p.m. each Sunday at the school.
"It keeps on growing, so we're thinking it must be helpful and we're thinking that they trust us," Voteau said. "It's the practical English, so they can go to the grocery or the pharmacy or the bank."
Growing from nine to 14 participants (ranging from parents of Sunset students to other family members) rather quickly, Nottingham noted the class is built around helping both the students and their families in the school setting.
"If we can break the language barrier, those parents are going to feel more comfortable about coming into the school," Nottingham said.
Though Nottingham teaches ESL at Sunset Elementary, she admitted she had never taken on a course like this, so the school and church agreed to bring in Walker to lead the class. Along with being a member of Trinity Heights, Walker is also an ESL teacher employed at Cloud Elementary in Wichita, a school with an enrollment that is 98 percent Hispanic.
For this class, Walker noted she is adapting to the needs of the students. Intended to be a one-hour weekly class, those taking part immediately asked for each session to be extended a half hour. Walker noted the planned six to eight week course was intended to address teaching English for a number of social scenarios, ranging from doctor visits to workplace interactions, but given the time required to teach the subject she is focusing primarily on the former.
Key topics in the class include how to make an appointment, how to talk to nurses, identifying symptoms and more, working to help the participants be self-sufficient on medical visits.
"That's my goal, working towards their ability to be able to converse with someone enough to at least get across what's wrong and why they need that appointment," Walker said. "I'm hoping it will give them some tools and the vocabulary (needed so) that they will be able to speak to someone."
Seeing firsthand how elementary students can be relied upon as translators for trips to the doctor is a reason Walker wanted to offer her services.
Noting she has witnessed it keep one student from even applying for the gifted program (due to several absences), Walker sees the value in trying to minimize those instances, as detrimental as they can be.
"I want them (parents) to be better informed so they can do that themselves," Walker said. "To keep the kids in school and learning is the absolute goal."
Walker knows from firsthand experience just how daunting learning and practicing a second language can be. Prior to her career as an ESL teacher, the bilingual Walker worked in Costa Rica for a time. Though she was fluent in Spanish, she noted she still felt nervous to interact with her host family initially, so she understands the stress of trying to gain the needed skills to be comfortable talking with native speakers.
"You can have tons of years of language education and still be afraid to talk, still not be confident enough to risk goofing, to risk having an error in what you're going to say," Walker said.
Confidence is a key objective of the class in Walker's eyes and just getting the adults to participate can go a long way towards that, something she has been pleased to see so far from some of those enrolled. Voteau noted Trinity Heights is providing some incentives for games, along with providing the materials for the class, to encourage that as well.
On top of helping the adults, Nottingham sees the class as helping the students as well. She said some have excitedly remarked about how their parents have homework and they have been recruited to help with that, allowing them to also hone their English skills.
Future plans for the class are uncertain at this time, depending on continued involvement and if family members want to continue with the program, though it is a service Voteau noted she is happy for the church to be involved in as long as necessary.
"To me, I think this is what a church is supposed to do," Voteau said. "However, we can be involved to help our community be the best it can be, I'm thinking we've managed to be a church then."