Nonprofit helping Latino youngsters with academic, cultural and social needs

Mothers Erica Lopez (left) and Maribel Benito get help from volunteer English instructor Marielle Lerner (center) as they learn to speak English.
Mothers Erica Lopez (left) and Maribel Benito get help from volunteer English instructor Marielle Lerner (center) as they learn to speak English. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 11, 2013

Lisa has $5. She buys a ruler that costs $3. Which can you use to find out how much Lisa has left?

A: 5+3; B: 5-3; C: 3-5; D: 3+5

Third grader Noemi Salgado circles C and looks up.

"It is subtraction," her tutor encourages. "But which is bigger, 3 or 5?"

The 8-year-old shoots a glance at the ceiling. "Five," she chirps and corrects the worksheet. Her enthusiasm, says the tutor, is a sign she is starting to get it.

Welcome to Puentes Hacia El Futuro - "bridges toward the future" - an after-school program for Latino youth, kindergarten through sixth grade, who live in homes where Spanish is the first language. Most are Mexican immigrants or the U.S.-born children of immigrants.

Founded in 2010, the program addresses academic, cultural, and social needs with an emphasis on self-esteem. It is an offshoot of Puentes de Salud - "bridges to health" - the nonprofit, medical clinic that in 2004 began serving South Philadelphia's large and growing Latino population.

"There is a high dropout rate for Latinos. It is easy for these kids to feel like they are just not smart," said Daphne Owen, 25, a second-year medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. She began as a Puentes volunteer in 2009 and became such a driving force at the after-school program that the children swarm her even before she can shed her white lab coat.

After getting a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of California-San Diego, Owen, who is fluent in Spanish, attended Bryn Mawr College to take the science courses she needed to apply to med school. She helped pay her expenses by tending bar at a local dive.

There she met a cast of Mexican dishwashers and was intrigued by the challenges their children face. So she hunted on the Internet, found Puentes de Salud, and struck up a mentoring relationship with one of its founders, Steven Larson, of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. Their brainstorming spawned Puentes Hacia El Futuro.

Meeting three times a week at Southwark Elementary School in South Philadelphia, a pre-K-8, where Latinos are 30 percent of the 520-student body, pupils are paired with college and graduate-school volunteers for homework supervision and mentoring in English.

Many of the volunteers are from Temple University, although Haverford College, Drexel University, St. Joseph's University, and the region's medical schools are represented too.

Rachel Jardini, 21, a Temple senior, participates once a week. An anthropology major with an interest in immigration, she also sits in as a volunteer translator at parent-teacher conferences.

The Philadelphia School District says 46 percent of Southwark's students (including its large Asian population) receive English Language Learner (ELL) services; 83 percent live in "economically disadvantaged" homes.

Southwark's ELL students scored above average in math and below average in reading on recent statewide standardized tests.

Southwark principal June Tran said Puentes helped "close the achievement gap" for ELL students.

"Often times their parents are unable to help," she said, "because they don't speak English themselves."

Beginning with 12 students and 30 volunteers, Puentes Hacia El Futuro has grown to 57 students and 100 volunteers.

A grant Owen won last year garnered $25,000 from a New Jersey philanthropy to hire two program coordinators, including Temple grad Elvis Almanzar, 23. "Growing up, I was one of these kids," said Almanzar, who was raised in Reading by Mexican-immigrant parents who still struggle with English and eke out a living in the mushroom industry.

At Southwark, he said, "we have [pupils] who make 'student of the month,' and some who are below math and reading levels. . . . I would have benefited from a program like this."

Instead of just waiting while their children study, parents can take English lessons taught once a week by Marielle Lerner, a Penn Ph.D. candidate in linguistics.

On a recent day, six mothers, most of them dressed in zipfront hoodies, had a lesson on the possessive s.

"Dad's car," said Lerner. "What is car?"

"Carro," said one mom.

"And what is Dad?"

" Papa," she said.

To show that the car belongs to Dad, said Lerner, "we add apostrophe s."

The program, says Larson, is rooted in the belief that language, employment, economic status, and geography - the "social determinants of health" - strongly influence wellness. Enrichment of this vulnerable population, he said, can pay public-health dividends.

"A lot of doctors say, 'It's not my problem,' " he said. "I beg to differ. It certainly is."


Contact Michael Matza

at 215-854-2541, mmatza@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at MichaelMatza1

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