Photos: Program reaches out to immigrants

April 13, 2011

A free tutoring program for immigrant and refugee children recently earned recognition through a United Way community spirit award.

The Friends of Simon tutoring project provides after-school literacy support for eight- to 12-year-olds in Coquitlam, Burnaby and Surrey. Through this program, Simon Fraser University students help more than 200 kids at 14 sites.

Program co-ordinator Angela Flumerfelt said the United Way award recognizes projects that find innovative ways to solve issues in communities.

"We have this issue of newly arrived immigrants and refugees who don't have the language skills, and in many cases, the families don't have the literacy skills to support the kids. They may not even be literate in their original language. So now these children are immersed in a setting where they have to learn a language plus learn all about literacy, which could be totally foreign to them," Flumerfelt said.

"So we have our tutors coming and working with these kids after school and giving them some support they may not be getting from home. Our tutors have the time ... to find things that are geared to their interest that help to bring about that enthusiasm for books and for literacy.

"That's really thrilling for us to be able to do that work, and then to be recognized by the United Way was just the icing on the cake."

In Coquitlam, the program operates out of Banting Middle School, as well as at Roy Stibbs, Mountain View and Miller Park elementaries. On average, each tutor works with three children in the twice-weekly sessions.

"It's a good mutual learning situation," Flumerfelt said. "The tutors learn a lot and their students learn a lot."

SFU professor emeritus Paul Shaker said most of the tutors are immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants.

"There is this role-modelling dimension in that the children see in the college students people who are a lot like them who are making it," Shaker said.

"One of the major methods of the program is to bring that embodiment -- that evidence of success on the part of second-language English speakers, recent immigrants and the children of immigrants -- right into the life of these public school children."

The 60 tutors also benefit from the paid work experience provided by the program.

"We were trying to capture the good energy and talent of college students and put it to socially useful purpose rather than simply jobs that help them pay their way through -- something that made more of a contribution to the betterment of society. There's an unusual amount of talent in an undergrad student population. If you could tap it to socially constructive purposes, you can get a lot of value for your dollar," Shaker said.

"The tutors have become a wonderful, cohesive cohort of people that has very high morale and works together beautifully. That's been one of the ancillary features of the project -- being a tutor has become a kind of social experience as well as a professional experience. There's quite a lot of spirit around the tutors."

The tutoring program has enhanced the educational experience for the SFU students, Shaker added.

"Undergraduate higher education can be fairly impersonal, and with something like this people are unified. They see each other regularly with the training sessions and they're unified around a common purpose, which is socially constructive. All in all, it's led to this extra benefit of becoming an activity that helps university life be more rewarding for the tutors."

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