Women religious fill unmet need in Catholic schools

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

First-grader Helen Kim held a card and prepared for her turn in the game of modified Go Fish she was playing with fellow students. She asked if the other had a card with a word that was the antonym of "wide."

Seeing no response, Sister Joan Stoverink, ASC, defined the word "wide" so one of the students at the table could find the opposite. She extended her arms and said that wide "is a tough one; it means 'spread out.'" Just then, a student sprung to his feet and shouted out the antonym, "narrow."

Four students at St. Stephen Protomartyr School in south St. Louis came together to play the game as part of their participation in the English Tutoring Project, which is completing its 20th year of helping immigrant and refugee students in Catholic schools acquire English language skills. It's an initiative of the St. Louis Area Women Religious Collaborative Ministries.

Helen said that the tutoring helps her with one of her favorite activities, writing. She displayed a story she wrote earlier this school year, "Making a Snowman Friend."

Joseph Thang, a third-grader at St. Stephen who came to America as a refugee at age 1, took part in the program as a kindergartner and first-grader and now is a graduate, having mastered English skills. "I liked game day," he said with a smile, adding that the program was especially important in helping him understand instructions that were given in his classroom.

St. Stephen parishioner Hou Khan Nuam has a kindergartner, David, and first-grader, Michael, in the program. "I appreciate this project," she said. "They gain confidence, get extra practice and gain the same understanding of English as other students in the class. They also learn about and appreciate a new culture."

Her children learn proper pronunciation, one of the biggest adjustments to make in learning the language, she said. She and her husband speak Zomi, a language originating in northwestern Burma (now Myanmar).

The older of her two children in the program was shy at school, but with the confidence he gained from the tutor, he now raises his hand in class and asks questions.

Pau Mung, Helen's father and a member of St. Pius V Parish in south St. Louis, said the family speaks Burmese at home. His daughter now speaks a lot of English and corrects his broken English, he said with a laugh, giving the example of his mispronunciation of the word "apple."

The program allows St. Stephen School to add diversity by serving immigrants and refugees. "We learn about other cultures, their history and that we can all get along in a rich, inclusive environment that makes us better," said Michel Wendell, principal of St. Stephen. "And it's great to have a religious sister teaching in our building."

The women religious who founded the program 20 years ago looked for an unmet educational need and focused on students in Catholic schools who were not native English speakers. It fit the mission of women religious, whose communities had come to the United States many years ago to serve an immigrant population.

The program began with women religious conducting the tutoring in a recreational vehicle that they drove to four schools with 64 students from 16 countries of origin participating. Now, English Tutoring Project services are present in eight schools at the request of the principals. More than 115 students are helped from as many as 16 countries of origin. The tutoring is offered at no charge to the families or schools.

Sister Kathleen Koenen, a School Sister of Notre Dame, began work as administrator of the program in 2014, bringing a background in teaching and administration. When the program began 20 years ago, the women religious thought it might be needed for just three years, Sister Kathleen said. But the need remained strong and the congregations that sponsor it and the lay board members have extended their financial commitment to continue as long as they can and there's a need.

The yearly budget of about $350,000 is supplemented by grants such as $5,000 gifts announced earlier this year from The Saigh Foundation and from The Greater St. Louis Book Fair. Other grants and individual gifts are sought to assist with the program.

Luis Llanos came to the United States from Colombia in 2001 and attended St. Cecilia School. He took part in the program for a year.

"Of course I remember my time in tutoring with Sister Marilyn (Wittenauer, RSM). It was in the fourth grade, and it made such a huge difference in my transition to living and studying in the United States," said Llanos, who later attended St. Louis University High School and the University of Notre Dame. He worked as as a manager at Accenture in Chicago, a global professional services company, until entering a master's degree program in business administration at Northwestern University in Chicago.

The multiple tutoring sessions a week helped him feel less anxious and more accepted and allowed him to learn faster, he said. "I remember those times fondly, and they played a pivotal role." 

English Tutoring Project

The English Tutoring Project is dedicated to ensuring that Catholic education is an option for families whose children struggle academically due to lack of English language abilities. The St. Louis Area Women Religious Collaborative Ministries founded the program in 1998.

Grounded in Catholic tradition and social teachings, the English Tutoring Project provides on-site assistance to children from refugee and immigrant families.

With the consolidation and closing of schools, the number of students served fluctuated and the countries of origin changed as new families arrived in St. Louis. All of the Catholic schools that the program served were in South St. Louis until 2014. Currently the project serves at St. Cecilia Catholic School and Academy, St. Frances Cabrini Academy, St. Stephen Protomartyr, South City Catholic Academy, Marian Middle School, all in south St. Louis; Holy Trinity School in St. Ann; St. Charles Borromeo School in St. Charles; and Immaculate Conception School in Dardenne Prairie.

For more information, visit www.englishtutoringproject.com. 

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