Breaking down the barriers

Christina Salter

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Speaking to employees in the 1835 Hinman dining hall, Mallory Dwinal heard about their kids’ struggles to learn English in Chicago schools. The Weinberg junior also knew firsthand from working in Mexico City that language barriers can cause loneliness and isolation.

“It gave me empathy for kids who sit in class everyday and listen to a language that they maybe understand, but definitely can’t participate in,” Dwinal said.

These experiences helped inspire Dwinal to create Social Enterprise for Language Foundations, a bilingual education program that sends volunteer tutors to Chicago public elementary schools.

Dwinal created a plan for the program during Spring Quarter last year in a social entrepreneurship class taught by economics Prof. Lillian Kamal. At the end of the class, students chose Dwinal’s proposal as the most feasible. Kamal then helped Dwinal put together a grant proposal for the Posner Fund.

Dwinal was awarded $500 to spend on workbooks and other teaching supplies, and spent Fall Quarter taking the necessary steps to make the education program a reality: identifying schools, finding volunteers, organizing a van schedule and gaining recognition as a Northwestern Community Development Corps group.

It was a difficult process to undertake, especially while balancing seven classes and serving as a site leader for another volunteer group, Dwinal said.

“I’d do it all over again, but I’m glad I don’t have to,” she said.

The program began Winter Quarter with about 90 volunteers, most of whom visited the program sites before classes at Chicago public elementary schools. Tutors volunteer at two Chicago schools: Peirce School, near the Bryn Mawr stop on the El’s Red Line, and Stockton Elementary School, at Clark Street and Montrose Avenue on the North Side. Dwinal chose schools based on their location in areas with large proportions of non-English speakers and their distance from NU.

This quarter, the group downsized to 45 volunteers and tutors started visiting during school hours.

Weinberg seniors Melissa Ammann and Ravi Randhava run a student-organized seminar through Weinberg about bilingual education in Chicago. To fulfill the volunteer portion of the course requirement, the 20 students in the class volunteer through Dwinal’s program for two hours each week at Peirce School.

“It’s a really nice way to connect what we’re learning in the classroom with what’s actually happening in schools,” Ammann said. “It’s a great way for NU students to get off campus and engage in the community.”

Alfredo Barraza, bilingual lead teacher at Peirce, said the program is the only ongoing program of its kind at Peirce. The school has about 250 students out of 1,000 in its ESL program. A challenge the school faces is a wide range of language proficiency levels, he said.

The tutors are good at helping where they are needed, whether it is providing small group reading, writing and math help, assisting in the classroom, or even helping prepare for tests that took place last month, Barraza said.

“I’m sure a lot of schools would really appreciate something like this,” he said.

Juan Gutierrez, assistant principal at Stockton, echoed Barraza’s appreciation for the program, saying he wishes it could take place daily at Stockton. Tutors come to Stockton three times per week, mostly helping with language skills and vocabulary, Gutierrez said. The tutors also assist older students with reading portfolios and language arts.

“The opportunity to provide one-on-one, or small group support … is critical for improvement in any student, not just (English Language Learners),” Gutierrez said.

Medill freshman Kate Goodwin has been volunteering with the program since Winter Quarter to continue the tutoring experience she had from high school. Goodwin said it is a “really good feeling” to know that she is affecting a student’s life, and added that it is refreshing to spend time with the kids.

“It’s really nice to get off the Northwestern campus,” Goodwin said. “You forget there’s a world going on outside.”

Dwinal wants to see the program continue and said additional site leaders will be chosen after she graduates next year. Weinberg sophomore Liz Harris and Weinberg senior Alexander Hertel-Fernandez lead sites with Dwinal.

Dwinal said she would like to find more volunteers for Stockton and eventually expand to other schools.

Since the majority of NU students come from strong educational backgrounds, they do not realize that there are public schools dealing with serious obstacles, Dwinal said. The program gives students first-hand experience dealing with these issues.

“It’s a frustrating experience as a volunteer to go in the schools and see the kids who really want to learn, but just don’t have the opportunities available to them,” she said.