Cultures & immigration beat: Class fills learning gap for refugees

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 18, 2012 - 6:40 PM

Every weekday, for two hours a day, new immigrants flock to Neighbor- hood House in St. Paul to brush up on their English and learn the cultural skills they'll need to succeed in America.

The English Language Learner classes have always been popular with new arrivals, who want to improve their English speaking and writing skills to better their prospects for work and school.

But lately, the students have been clamoring to learn more than just language skills. They want to study math.

This Thursday, the first ELL Numeracy class for new immigrants will wrap up its first quarter. The class -- which began in September with roughly 12 students -- is now up to 20 students.

It's geared toward beginning English language students, said Liz Derr, coordinator of ELL classes at Neighborhood House, a nonprofit agency that helps newly resettled refugees and immigrants in Minnesota.

The adult students come from countries ranging from Burma to Ethiopia to Mexico.

Most of the students in the beginning English classes are refugees who have had very little formal schooling, their education often interrupted by war and long stints in refugee camps.

As a result, they struggle in situations that require knowledge about numbers.

"They've really been asking for a lot of math skills," Derr said. "Numbers are a universal language and math is something they can relate to in their everyday lives."

This fall, for example, students in the Numeracy class did a unit on cooking. They studied food vocabulary as well as fractions and measurements. They've been tested regularly.

One unexpected finding: The math lessons seem to be helping students grasp English better, Derr said.

"We had some students who had started to plateau in their English skill level," she said. "But since we introduced math, we've seen both their math scores and their English scores increase."

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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