LPS program teaches parents, not students

Zeanb Atyea learned English through the Family Literacy Program session at Arnold Elementary School.

Story and photos by Erinn Wakeman, News Net Nebraska

Growing up in southern Iraq, Zeanb Atyea got used to the constant din of explosions, fires and screaming.

She got used to cramped, crowded spaces and oppression under Saddam Hussein. She got used to living in constant fear and anxiety.

But when she met and married her husband, there was one thing she couldn’t get used to – the idea of raising their children in that same fear.

So in 2002, Atyea, 41, and her husband, Haider Al-Ghareeb, came to Lincoln with visas to live, work and raise a family. Al-Ghareeb found work and was gone 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day.

Atyea stayed home with their children.

In the workforce, Al-Ghareeb picked up English quickly, but Atyea, isolated at home, couldn’t speak a word of it. If she needed to schedule a doctor’s appointment, to talk to her children’s teacher, to go to the grocery store, she relied on Al-Ghareeb to help her.

“Eventually, I got sick of talking to him,” Atyea jokes. “I decided I’d better learn English fast.”

Enter the Family Literacy Program at Arnold Elementary School, one of six Lincoln elementary schools to offer the service.

The goal of the Family Literacy program, which in its third year serves about 100 parents in six locations, is to assist parents in helping their children be better students, said Leesa Kraeger, coordinator of Arnold’s program. The program does this by improving language and literacy skills in immigrant families.

Data from LPS showed the likelihood that parents would read to their children more than three times a week improved from 32 to 50 percent after enrollment in the program.

Most of the parents in the program are immigrants and refugees. They are trying to learn English to find work, get their GEDs, assimilate into the culture, and most importantly, communicate with their children and help them with their homework.

“As a refugee, you have fled your home,” said Karen Parde, state refugee resettlement coordinator. “Then you come here, you don’t know the language, the culture, even the different concept of time. Learning English is just one of the biggest barriers in a long list.”

Lincoln and the surrounding area is a hotspot for immigrants to resettle now because of the low cost of living, low unemployment and strong communities of immigrants, Parde said.

Park Middle School principal Ryan Zabawa said refugee and immigrant families need extra help.

“We are excellent at educating the child but leave the parents behind,” Zabawa said. “This creates huge barriers at home for the parents of these children.”

Along with Arnold, West Lincoln, Elliott, Everett, Hartley and Belmont all have family literacy programs.

At Arnold, the class of 15 meets every day from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. The program is free, and free daycare is available for parents with small children. Parents in the classroom represent just 5 percent of the students enrolled at Arnold, but 40 percent of ELL (English Language Learners) students there. The program is so popular, there is a waiting list.

“There is a limit on the number of families in the program because of size issues,” Kraeger said. “When you have 15 students plus me, plus translators and guest speakers, it gets to be too crowded.” It is also difficult to teach more than 15 because the students aren’t all on the same level language-wise, Kraeger said. “Some of the students have been here less than a year and could only say hello and their name in English when they first joined the program.”

Atyea was one of those students when she signed up three years ago. “The first time I came to a meeting, I only knew how to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’,” Atyea said. “I needed a translator for all of the meetings.” Now in her third year participating in the program, Atyea speaks freely in English.

Other organizations in Lincoln offer free ELL classes, but they don’t engage parents in their children’s education the way the Family Literacy Program does, Parde said.

The Lincoln Literacy Council’s ELL program offers English classes, cultural orientation, and employment services. Only the Family Literacy Program helps immigrant parents play a bigger role in their children’s education, which is empowering, Kraeger said.

In Iraq, Atyea was a math teacher for fourth and fifth graders. She said she would like to teach here someday, but she knows she needs better English skills first. Now, she teaches Arabic out of her home on Saturdays and Sundays. She wants her five children to be fluent in Arabic and English – Arabic to remember their heritage and English to ensure their futures.

In class, Atyea learns not only English lessons but cultural skills. The program also has parenting classes and frequent guest speakers.

Past speakers have talked about everything from safe food handling and storage to electrical safety during the winter, when many of the parents hang Christmas lights for the first time and rely on space heaters for extra warmth.

Other speakers have explained the basic legal rights in the U.S., talked about the Center for Legal Immigration, and given hair care tips. A doctor spoke to the group, all women, about depression and isolation because many of the recent immigrants have come from a community that helped them raise their children to a place with no help and a language barrier.

A police officer explained all the different police uniforms they might see (Lincoln police, county sheriffs, state patrol officers, and more), because many of the parents come from a place where the police are feared, Kraeger said.

A book club is held four times a year to stretch the students’ reading skills as well as open discussion on the places they come from and the challenges they face now. Kraeger recalled a book they read last year for the book club, entitled, “Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.”

“I remember I asked how Joseph’s village was the same as their own, and they said in Joseph’s village and their own, everyone looked the same. Here, though, everyone looks different,” Kraeger said.

For Atyea, those differences were intimidating at first. Arriving in the U.S. only a year after 9/11, Atyea said she was worried people would be angry or fearful of her because of the hijab she wears on her head, but everyone she encountered was kind and helpful.

Now, Atyea volunteers in the cafeteria and library at Arnold to be as active as possible in her children’s education.

Her twin girls, Nour and Ruqyia, 11, want to be nurses when they grow up. Miriam, a second grader at Arnold, wants to be a doctor. Sindis, 5, wants to be a teacher like her mom when she grows up. And Karrar, an 8-month-old, will learn to speak English from his mom.

Zeanb Atyea with Arnold Family Literacy coordinator Leesa Kraeger