Diverse community: Program helps non-English speaking parents learn the ropes

While most Milford students can't wait for school to end, students in one Meadowside School class are both celebrating the year's end and also looking forward to next September.
Part of the reason is the students in this class are adults who, during the school year, receive specialized instruction to help with important life skills. They meet every Tuesday evening for group tutoring in skills that are uniquely beneficial to adults who speak English as a Second Language (ESL).
When school ends, the supportive learning environment where they master life skills temporarily shuts down until the new school year.
Like other ESL programs, adult students in the Meadowside School ESL Program, many of whom are new to the United States, learn English to help them handle routine chores and appointments. But unlike many other traditional ESL offerings, the Meadowside students also are offered free on-site child care while they attend the 90-minute weekly class.
The Meadowside School ESL program is still going strong some 20 years after it was founded, largely the brainchild of Mike Cummings, then the Meadowside School principal, and the late Joy Stonier, who at the time headed the Milford Literacy Center.
Now the district's assistant Superintendent of Schools, Cummings said the need for such a program was obvious.
“At the time, Meadowside School drew a tremendous number of students from the nearby Robert Treat Apartments that came to us speaking many different languages,” Cummings said.
“At one point, I think we counted 25 different languages in the school including some from Eastern Europe, several Pakistani dialects, and Asian. We also began to realize that while the students' fathers generally came to the United States with a pretty high level of education, many of the mothers lacked exposure to English.”
Cummings said he and staff began trying to find a way to offer ESL instruction to those who needed it and were willing to learn.
“I talked with Joyce Milne, and we knew that children might arrive at school more proficient in English if they were exposed more to it in the home,” Cummings continued. “We thought we had to find a way to attract the moms.”
Through Milne, Cummings contacted then-Literacy Center Director Joy Stonier, whom he described as someone “who never met a problem she was afraid to handle.”
The result was a collaborative arrangement that remains in place today. The Board of Education provides the space for the ESL evening program, and spreads the word about its availability. The program is free.
The Literacy Center provides two tutors each class evening. And the Literacy Center also ensures that qualified on-site child care is available so the adult students can bring their children. Sue Glennon, Board of Education chairman, has been coordinating the child care for many years.
“We have a small trusted group to watch the children,” Glennon said, noting that without child care many of the students might not be able to attend. She works closely with the current Literacy Center Director Tami Jackson.
Jackson said the number of female students who attend weekly is flexible, ranging anywhere from three to 10.
“It's a fun class,” she said, that centers on language, reading and life skills. “And our tutors respond to whatever the need might be.”
Initially, the focus mainly centered on practical skills for mothers who rarely worked outside the home but who needed to interact with the community.
“At the time in our schools, all interaction between parents and teachers was in person,” Cummings added. “We wanted parents to have the language skills to navigate those parent-teacher conferences. We also wanted to help them handle things as basic as grocery shopping, or communicating with a doctor.”
Jackson noted that some of the current ESL students do work outside the home, and also need the language and life skills for the workplace.
“We had a student who was a nail technician,” Jackson said. “Naturally, she was most concerned with learning to correctly pronounce different colors and communicating with her clients.”
Jackson also noted, however, that learning these skills in a classroom setting can be a little intimidating for some. For those, the Literacy Center offers one-on-one tutoring, which Jackson said sets Milford apart from other literacy centers in the state. Jackson seems sure that the Milford community is well served by both the one-on-one tutoring and the Meadowside School ESL class for adults.
Cummings agreed.
“Meadowside School, to this day, has benefited from the multi-cultural environment,” said Cummings. “Over the years, the Meadowside School ESL Program has served a great number of families. For a small program, it's had a pretty big impact.”