About 40 students from LSU’s Ogden Honors College have spent this school year in East Baton Rouge Parish schools tutoring an influx of Hispanic students who need extra help with speaking, reading and writing in English.
The LSU students volunteer an hour or more each week on school days. They work with small groups of high schoolers or middle schoolers in science or history or literature, giving them a much-needed hand as they struggle to adapt to, what is for many of them, a foreign land.
The story is a positive one: The EBR students — most of them new immigrants to the United States — get more help with learning English, which helps them do better in school. The LSU students get an opportunity to have an impact on the community and beef up their Spanish-speaking skills. The school district gets the help it needs at no cost, and the Honors College gets to lend a helping hand.
But the tutoring partnership didn’t start out just as some feel-good idea or enrichment program. The local school district found itself in desperate need of assistance this fall when it saw a large uptick in the number of students who knew little or no English — tied largely to a national wave of immigrant children fleeing Central America for the United States and crossing into the country illegally.
“This happened very quickly. The need emerged very rapidly,” said Granger Babcock, associate dean at the Honors College.
Without the resources to hire enough people to address the issue and too much demand for the district’s normal stable of dedicated volunteers, EBR school officials turned to the Honors College with a plea for help.
“We had a definite need in our district,” said Tassin Idewu, an English as a second language instructional support specialist at East Baton Rouge Parish Schools.
About 300 new English language learners started in the district this school year, Idewu said. That puts the total of students who are learning English as a second language in the district at about 2,000 — most of them Spanish speakers, she said.
“We can use all the help we can get,” Idewu said. “A lot of these children do not have resources or parental support at home.”
Tens of thousands of unaccompanied immigrant children — mostly from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — have been caught attempting to cross the southwest border illegally at the Rio Grande Valley since October 2013, according to the federal government.
More than 56,800 have been placed with sponsor families in the United States — about 1,800 of them in Louisiana, meaning there are more students who know little English enrolling in local schools.
The tutoring program is about to start back up, following a short hiatus for the winter break. A meeting for students interested in volunteering will take place Tuesday, and there’s a chance the program could grow even larger. Many of the students who participated last semester said they hope to continue into the spring.
In August, right about the time that news was heating up about the immigrant children and his first month on the job, Ogden Honors College Dean Jonathan Earle got a call pitching the volunteer tutoring program. “It was a ‘ripped from the headlines’ kind of moment,” Earle said.
He wasn’t sure how interested students would be.
“Almost instantly, we were met with a flood of interest,” Earle said. “I love that, in this community, when there was a problem at hand, someone called the Ogden Honors College and we were able to help them right off the bat.”
The students have gone through training with the school district. Teachers give them assignments that they work on with students.
Babcock said some of the tutors were not aware of the volatile situation in Central America that children have been fleeing. Several of his students came back with stories saying that they learned children were seeking a safer, better life.
“Many of the areas they are coming from are very violent,” he said.
LSU freshman Florencia Scaglia Drusini said volunteering to help immigrant students was personal for her, in addition to being a way to give back to the community. “I was one of those kids who moved to the United States at a young age,” she said.
Drusini and her family moved to the United States from Uruguay when she was about 4 years old. She said she still remembers a woman who helped her learn English and is thankful for the opportunities she was given.
“When I remembered how helpful that was, I realized that some of these kids might not have the same opportunity,” she said.
Last semester, Drusini spent about an hour or hour and a half each Thursday at Westdale Middle School helping sixth- and seventh-graders — most of them new to the United States from Central America.
She said she hadn’t kept up with the reports on the immigration influx or the political battles it spawned and isn’t overly concerned by it now.
“Mostly, I’m just there to help some kids who otherwise wouldn’t get that help,” she said. “I still don’t understand the politics behind any of it.”
Gov. Bobby Jindal and other Louisiana leaders traveled to the Texas-Mexico border in July to get more information about the immigration situation. Jindal and others argued that the immigrant youths should be sent back home — despite concerns from advocacy groups about violence in the countries they were fleeing.
Jindal had requested more information from the federal government about where they were being placed, the costs the state could incur and whether the federal government planned to pick up any of the tab.
Jindal spokeswoman Shannon Bates Dirrman said this week that the information the Governor’s Office got back was outdated and unhelpful.
“We are working to support these children while they are in our state, but it was irresponsible of the federal government to provide us no initial information on the illegal immigrant minors coming to Louisiana,” Dirrman said. “When we finally did get a response to the letter we sent, it included no new information and was months late. This influx of illegal immigrant children is predictable — the president should enforce immigration laws and secure the border.”
Still, Dirrman stressed that the Governor’s Office appreciates the LSU students’ work to fill in the gap and address the new need.
Cristian Soler, a junior at LSU, spent last semester tutoring three brothers — ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders — from Honduras an hour each week on Mondays.
Soler’s family is from Cuba, and he saw the tutoring program as an opportunity to become more fluent in Spanish.
“I also recognize the immigration problems. They really don’t have that much help getting used to the school system once they get here,” he said.
Soler said he thinks it’s easy for immigrant students to come across as aloof or uninterested, when really they just don’t understand.
“It’s great to see how eager they are — how much they really want to learn English and how eager they are to be a part of their class,” he said.
One of the projects he worked with the Honduran brothers on was William Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet.” The brothers had never heard the story before and were struggling to follow along, Soler said. “It was funny how interested they were in it once they got it,” he said.
Idewu said she believes the effort has been a “great collaboration” and will have a lasting impact on students who are tutored.
“I think the benefit of having them from the LSU Honors College is that these are young students, close to the age of the high school students, so it helped them look forward to what they could possibly achieve,” Idewu said. “It motivates them.”
She said she hopes that LSU’s students find the program as rewarding as it is for the students they tutor. “It’s great for our students on our end, as well as the LSU students,” she said.