Bridging Home & School

WHEDco’s Family Literacy Program

Hafsatu Jalloh stood in front of a crowd gathered at WHEDco’s Urban Horizons Early Childhood Discovery Center, home to its Head Start program. She and a group of fellow adult English learners were there to share their stories, and they seemed eager. It was hard to imagine that –only a few months ago– most of them would have felt very uncomfortable speaking in a language foreign to them, let alone presenting in front of a crowd.

“I am very happy to do this. I have been here for two years and this is the first time I spoke English. Now I want to continue my education,” proudly states Hafsatu, who emigrated from Sierra Leone.

It was a beautiful day of storytelling, as these participants in WHEDco’s Family Literacy Program gathered to present in front of their peers, WHEDco staff, and program funders.

WHEDco’s Family Literacy program, which runs over a course of 27 weeks, aims to build a bridge between home and school by building upon families’ strengths, their culture, their language and their personal histories. It focuses on projects that help parents share their culture and language with their children, while developing presentation skills in the English language and with the use of technology.

At its core, the program’s approach is based on the idea of transformative learning, and it uses autobiographical writing as a tool to generate language, literacy development, vocabulary expansion, self-reflection and personal growth.

Program participants are encouraged to write about themselves and their families. For example, as part of the Family Books project, they were invited to write stories based on their childhood memories, and to reflect on how these experiences may relate to those of their children.

“WHEDco’s Family Literacy program helps to build our participants’ confidence as they become better able to navigate their surroundings,” says Silvana Vasconcelos, Director of the Urban Horizons Early Childhood Discovery Center and founder of the Family Literacy Program, adding that the program “provides a safe space for them and creates a sense of community.”

Participants come from all over the world –from Central and South America, to West Africa and South Asia– and their ages range from 20 to 50 years old, but they all have one thing in common: The desire to communicate more fluently in the English language, in order to become better advocates for their children and themselves.

The program currently offers courses for English learners on two levels –beginners and intermediate– and it relies on two instructors, Nadine and Ernie, who meet with their respective groups three times per week. Although both groups follow a conversational approach, the “beginners” course involves more listening and Q&A, while the “intermediate” class incorporates more reading and writing.

 In terms of measuring the program’s success, Silvana, Nadine and Ernie point out that the results are evident: Participants keep coming back, they’re engaged, and they’re doing the work.

Meanwhile, at WHEDco’s Head Start program, teachers like Nicholas Donis and Estella Leonard can also see improvements in the students whose parents attend the Family Literacy classes regularly: their English vocabulary has increased, they demonstrate better reading comprehension, they show improvements in their listening skills and they are, overall, more focused in the classroom.

“We see the children progressing,” states Silvana, noting that, as their parents gain confidence in the English language, they become more engaged in their kids’ schoolwork and overall education.

One of the program’s participants – Yuridia Solano, a young mother from Mexico– sums it up by affirming: “It’s not just about [learning] English. It’s about everything. I can help my daughter with her homework. I can talk to the doctor and find out what to do for my daughter.”