Our Bridge program offers classroom aid to immigrant children

The Charlotte Observer
Tuesday, October 7, 2014

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– CRYSTAL O’GORMAN
Kindergartners work on homework, have snacks, build puzzles and color during Our Bridge’s first hour. The program runs 3-6 p.m. Monday-Friday.

On Sept. 29, 70 elementary students sat cross-legged in rows on a blue rug at Our Bridge, a nonprofit after-school program Sept. 29.

Chatter stopped when they spoke in unison with Education Coordinator Linda Lang: “Stop, look, listen.” Then they went over the rules and routine.

The students, in various ways of acknowledgment, agreed: rules matter.

What may seem simple was a big deal coming from immigrant and refugee children learning to speak English.

That’s why Our Bridge Executive Director Sil Ganzó said she was compelled to take over the program after it was shut down last year by her former employer, a for-profit tutoring company.

“I have a passion for education, and I wanted to continue to give these kids a safe and welcoming place to learn,” said Ganzó, who emigrated to the U.S. from Argentina.

Our Bridge is a nonprofit organization that in August received a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant: a federal grant for academic enrichment after-school programs for students who attend high-poverty, low-performing schools.

Our Bridge works with refugee and immigrant students at Winterfield, Merry Oaks and Billingsville elementary schools. The students come to Charlotte from 22 countries, including Nepal, Burma, Bhutan, Mexico, Iraq and Honduras.

The program helps students with homework, provides English-language tutoring and creates an environment where they can learn from others going through the same experience.

Lang directs the English as a second language program. She has 30 years of experience teaching elementary school, special needs and English in Scotland, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

She assesses each student’s language skills, then works with them one-on-one or in small groups to help with homework and engage in language-focused play and conversation.

The classrooms are filled with puzzles and books, and there is a game center with dozens of board games.

The language lessons stick, Lang said, “when they learn by doing and having fun.”

Our Bridge also provides meals and transportation, celebrates cultural holidays and offers weekly learning themes. Through those themes, students engage in community outreach, physical activities, field trips and STEM-based learning.

Program Director Andrew Eastwood talked about a hit project on frog hibernation in which students made edible tadpole-winter hibernation exhibits of whipped cream, blue jello, chocolate pudding and gummy worms.

“The kids loved learning about it and eating it,” Eastwood said.

The Our Bridge program is at 1350 Central Ave. in Charlotte’s Central Square Shopping Center. The center has donated a grassy plot on the lot where the students plan a garden this spring.

Volunteer tutors worked with students at metal tables and chairs in classrooms, separated by brightly colored half-walls dividing them by grades.

Jack Meza, a volunteer tutor who emigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador 10 years ago, said, “When I came here, I didn’t speak English and I pretty much had to teach myself.

“I am here to help these students so they don’t have to face the same challenges I did.”

Phayel Bhagi, also a volunteer tutor, works as a classroom facilitator with Central Piedmont Community College’s Adult ESL program. Bhagi moved to Charlotte from Bhutan five years ago.

“I get energy from their excitement,” Bhagi said of the Our Bridge students, “and I love learning about their different languages.”

Billingsville student Yulissa Rojas Torres,10, attends Our Bridge. “I like the teachers here, and I like being with my friends.

“You have so much fun here,” she said.

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