Learning without compromises

Culture: A Baltimore effort teaches children English while encouraging their native Spanish skills.

March 12, 2000|By Ron Snyder | Ron Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Stephanie Pozzo moved to Baltimore from Argentina with her family four years ago, she couldn't speak any English and was getting ready to start school.

Now the third-grader at General Wolfe Elementary School in Baltimore can speak English and Spanish fluently, helped by Saturday classes through Education-Based Latino Outreach (EBLO) in Canton.

"I've learned a lot here," said Stephanie, who began attending classes at EBLO two years ago. "My favorite book is `How the Grinch Stole Christmas.' "

Children such as Stephanie were why EBLO's tutoring program was established, said the group's founder and director Jose Ruiz, a civic activist and the newly appointed Hispanic liaison to the mayor's office.

"We see a lot of Latino children who start school and can't speak any English," said Ruiz, whose group offers free tutoring from October to May. "Before the kids come here, they really struggle with English and in school, despite having good attendance. Now they love speaking English as they build up their self-esteem."

Ruiz, originally from Puerto Rico, began his free tutoring program 20 years ago with one pupil at Enoch Pratt Library on O'Donnell Street.

`Identity crisis'

Since then, he has seen his program grow to include 45 pupils and as many volunteer tutors, who have met for the past 15 years from 10 a.m. to 12: 30 p.m. every Saturday at Potomac Community Center, 1001 S. Potomac St.

Many pupils, he said, feel out of place in school because they are from a different country and speak a different language than most of their classmates.

"A lot of these kids have gone through an identity crisis because they are afraid to speak Spanish out of the home," Ruiz said. "Here we want to help them learn English, but let them know it's important they don't lose their culture."

EBLO receives most of its money through local foundations and community donations at the annual Latino Festival. To ensure pupils continue going to the center each week, the organization spends about $5,000 annually to rent a bus to transport the pupils to and from the center.

"If you don't have transportation, they won't come," he said. "It's too complicated for a lot of these families, many of whom are struggling financially."

When the pupils arrive for each session, they are offered a snack before getting to work. They are broken into groups and start with reading and writing exercises.

Mentoring

Many pupils have worked with the same tutor for more than a year. Some of the tutors are local college students, while others are community volunteers or former pupils.

"Last year, I came here to get help for the SATs and I decided to stay and help out where I can," said Louis Simbala, 17, a Patterson High School senior. "I think it is important to help make these kids feel good about themselves, while reminding them where they came from."

Rachel Steinhardt started volunteering for EBLO about a year ago. The 20-year-old international studies major at the Johns Hopkins University got involved after being introduced to it through a Latino organization on campus. Over the past year, Steinhardt has worked with Luis Guevara, a Highlandtown Elementary School second-grader.

"I feel like I've really contributed here," Steinhardt said. "Watching Luis learn as much as he has has been great. Just to know that someone cares about what he learns is important to him."

Luis, 8, said he likes getting one-on-one time with Steinhardt because he can go over questions he might not be able to get answered in school.

"Rachel does a good job of helping me with my homework," said Luis. "She also helps me work on my reading and spelling."

Honing Spanish skills

For bilingual pupils, the center offers Spanish lessons. Mireia Blanco, a University of Maryland, Baltimore County graduate student, heard about the Saturday school by chance in November. Since then, Blanco, a native of Spain, has volunteered as a Spanish tutor.

"In today's world, it is important to be bilingual, but the students just don't think it is because their classmates aren't," said Blanco, 28.

Any Latino pupil can participate in the program, and anyone can volunteer. EBLO is near an agreement with two elementary schools and one middle school in the city to start an afternoon reading program for Latino pupils, which will meet twice a week for three hours.

The Saturday school program is expensive -- about $42,000 a year, Ruiz said, not including money spent on summer programs, field trips and salaries for his two workers.

"We have grown so much that we are looking to possibly moving to a larger location in the future. However, raising money is always a challenge," he said.

Ruiz said his work does not end after the children leave Saturday. During the week, he acts as an intermediary, talking to teachers and principals of his pupils, alerting the school of problems and offering additional help where he can.

"My job is to help these kids get into college, especially since our community has such a high dropout rate," Ruiz said.

Ruiz also works with pupils' parents after each school year to help them teach their children to read.

"We can do a lot, but it is important for the parents to help as well," Ruiz said. "This way, the parent and child can learn to read together."

Information: 410-563-3160.

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