Starting a new school can be hard enough for a kid without also adding in not being able to speak the same language as most of your classmates. Spanish is Gabriela Garcia-Perez’s first language, but she quickly learned English growing up in her predominately English-speaking Guilford, Conn. community. While she was attending an event for Puerto Rican families moving to her area following the island’s 2017 hurricanes, Gabriela realized just how hard it would be for many of the young Spanish speakers to integrate into their new schools without having the same English-language proficiency. Wanting to help, Gabriela reached out to the New Haven Board of Education to see if she would be able to start some sort of mentoring program specifically for the new English-language learning [ELL] students. She was allowed to create a program within New Haven Public Schools’ already-existing Saturday Academy, an extracurricular tutoring program for students.
Now 18, Gabriela has spent the last three years running the Community Integration Mentoring Program [CIMP]. Each Saturday, she brings about ten volunteers —all middle or high school students themselves — to the Saturday Academy at Fair Haven School, which is located in one of New Haven’s heavily Latino communities. The CIMP mentors pull the elementary-aged ELL students out of the regular programming in order to provide them with individualized tutoring focused on improving their English proficiency. Throughout CIMP’s duration, Gabriela and her mentors have impacted the lives of over 45 ELL students.
Describe Community Integration Mentoring Program.
We provide the opportunity for English-language learners within an urban community called New Haven to develop their English communication skills from the help of students from neighboring school communities. It’s the idea of kids helping kids. The end goal is for them to integrate into society and become active members within our towns. It also promotes integration among communities, so we hope to create a symbiotic relationship and cultural learning experience between the communities involved. Guilford, Conn. is a very sheltered, privileged community, so for them to go into the city of New Haven which is less than 20 minutes away, it’s a real cultural-shock experience they get. These elementary school ELL students, they’re in fourth and fifth grade, and the mentors which are the students coming in to help them, are middle schoolers and high schoolers. A lot of the mentors are from Guilford, so by them interacting with students from the New Haven community, they’re really being exposed to a lot of issues and situations that they don’t necessarily hear about on an everyday basis within their community. In reality, the New Haven students are really acting as a resource to the mentors as well. The mentors are providing the ELL students with individualized help. They’re becoming role models and mentors and they are becoming their friend and someone for the New Haven students to trust. For the younger students, they are the ones who are getting access to a whole new perspective because they’re interacting with kids who are a little older than them. It’s great because in reality, kids learn best from their peers.
My program works through the Saturday Academy program in New Haven which is an extracurricular that they offer. We pick out the students based on who the teachers and the principal within the school think is best for us to work with. I run through [the students recommended] and then I pair them with the mentors based on who I think would click best. I take them out of the classroom for about 45 minutes while they’re having downtime or while the student is given some sort of assignment they can complete quickly, so that the students working with us can come. Then we work with them on an individual basis and execute the lesson plan. After the lesson plan, everybody goes to gym class and then we join all the other classmates, and that way the other students are then interacting with us as well and everybody is getting to meet each other.
What is your role with the mentoring program?
About three years ago, I started it. In order to do this, I first had to contact the Board of Education and see the possibility of doing this at all. They allowed me to then have a meeting with the principal at Fair Haven School, and he talked to me about how his school in New Haven itself has an extracurricular program called Saturday Academy. The students have the possibility of going to school on Saturdays for half a day. The students are provided lunch, and they’re given math classes, reading classes, they develop interpersonal skills. It’s a great way for the parents to then go to work and know that their kids are in a safe place.
My program, CIMP, works within the Saturday Academy in New Haven. I bring all of the mentors from Guilford especially, but we do have mentors from other different towns as well. We have opened it up to anyone who wants to get involved. We drive them up to Fair Haven School on Saturday mornings. We then work with the students on a one-to-one or two-to-three ratio, because we want to keep that idea of individualized help. We execute the lesson plan that I’ve planned. I make sure to have the mentors take notes on what the students they’re working with need to work on, and their strengths, their weaknesses, things that interest them. I then create different lesson plans based off of those notes. I make sure to make them fun but at the same time educational, because we want to keep those kids engaged and we want them to want to keep coming back to us. We then go to the gym class that Saturday Academy provides. They tend to do lots of cultural activities during gym. It’s great because now the mentors and the teachers are being taught by the younger students.
Within the program, I have to execute the planning of everything. I do the lesson plans, I reach out and recruit mentors, I do lots of presentations with them within my community to recruit younger people to want to get involved. Through my program, I’ve been able to connect with lots of different groups within New Haven to help me develop this. I volunteer at the New Haven Board of Education where I learned about all the different issues these kids may be facing. Lots of these students within New Haven are exposed to lots of issues we don’t hear about in our communities, so when the kids start talking about homelessness or immigration issues or potentially bullying, I’m then knowledgeable on those topics and how New Haven has handled them. I can then become a resource for the mentors on how to approach that with their students.
Why did you want to start this program?
About three years ago, I went to an event that was tailored for the Puerto Ricans families who were coming here from the  hurricane disaster. At the event, the idea of students coming in and not being able to speak the language really hit me at that moment. Obviously, I was aware of it, but it became a lot more evident to me at that event. My first language is Spanish but I grew up in a community where I was surrounded by everybody who spoke English and my parents chose for me to speak Spanish. It’s not like they didn’t speak English, but they did that because they knew I would learn [English] quickly being surrounded by everybody who spoke English. For kids within the New Haven community — specifically Fair Haven which is a very Latino-based community within New Haven — it’s a lot harder for them to become integrated into the English language-speaking culture. They go to the grocery store and supermarket, they are able to speak Spanish to the clerk. They go to school, they’re able to speak Spanish to the teacher. They go to school and talk with friends, they can interact with them in Spanish. At home, they’re obviously going to speak their native language. Unfortunately, this does really have an effect on their academic abilities later on. A lot of these students are not immigrants, a lot of them are native born, so they are entitled to all the same rights as any other students. New Haven particularly only gives their students about 30 months in a bilingual setting. After those 30 months, the students are then put into mainstream learning and unfortunately we know that not all kids learn at the same rates … There are many different factors that tie into these students not being able to be proficient within English, like how their community is mainly of one ethnic background which does not force them to speak the English language. It’s great for the mentors to be able to come into these communities and see the situation that the kids are living in. It’s more of a cultural experience for both groups because then the younger ELL students are able to see all these different opportunities that they can strive for. We open their perspective to different career choices, to different aspirations they may not have thought of beforehand.
Have you noticed a change in the kids and mentors who have gone through the program?
Absolutely. Lots of the times, we see the students who are not as proficient in English perceive themselves as submissive. They’re not as outgoing because of embarrassment or because of many different factors that prevent them from being themselves. Lots of times, language barriers make people introverted and prevent them from showing the personalities they actually have. Working with lots of our students, we’ve see them open up and blossom in miraculous ways.
It was our first year doing this, and we had one little girl come up to us after doing a lesson plan that we had just ended. She started explaining what had happened last week, the reason she didn’t come to CIMP. It was because ICE had come to her house and she was telling us about the speech that her mom gave her because she thought they were going to get deported. Her mom was telling her that she had a social worker and everything was going to be ok and she was going to stay with her brother. It was so impactful for these words to come out of a seven-year-old. Lots of times we kind of think, ‘Oh, they’re just kids,’ but in reality these students are exposed to a lot more of the realities of life than the mentors. That was really crazy for the mentors to hear. Lots of times when we hear about these sorts of problems, we hear them on the news, and although we feel sad for two minutes, unfortunately, we just keep going on with life and it doesn’t really hit us as hard as it really should. Having these mentors interact with these type of students, it really does help a lot for them to build sensitivity and build love for each others’ cultures.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
Honestly it’s going to sound very cliche, but just seeing how the kids react to us coming in every Saturday. It’s a whole new aura that has brought so much light into my life and into all the other students within the program. It’s so great to see how the different grades within the mentors themselves have been able to interact. When you get to high school the freshman are at the bottom of the totem pole. I have freshmen in my program, sophomores, seniors, juniors, 8th graders, 7th graders, 6th graders, and despite their age, they’ve all been able to interact and learn from each other and been able to talk about different classes and school, give advice to each other on how they should tackle these classes. Just seeing how everybody has been able to connect with each other and learn from each other has been so rewarding. It’s great to see how these students within Guilford and all the other towns involved … have learned from all the kids who are mentees that are a part of the program. They have been exposed to all these different situations they don’t hear about on a normal basis and they’re developing love for each other and for each other’s cultures and backgrounds. We’re developing sensitivity and we’re developing a bridge between a very prevalent cultural divide.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
I want to show the idea that especially for students and kids, it’s important that they learn that getting involved starts at the get go, and from a young age particularly. When we have students like these who are going out and they’re showing the younger students how to be people within their community that are important, that are respected, it really speaks volumes. I hope that my program, as far as students around everywhere and around every age, [inspires them] to want to get involved in their community and find something they’re passionate about, a cause that drives them to want to push people to be better.
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