Strong Start instructor Edna Pinto (centre) helps student Surinder Dhillon learn to print her name.

Immigrants getting a Strong Start at Delta schools

Grandmothers go back to class to learn English skills.

Walking around her brightly lit classroom at Hellings Elementary, Edna Pinto keeps a close watch on her students.

Seated on small, preschool-sized furniture, students quietly concentrate on their spelling exercise.

The classroom is filled with colourful images and toys many students would see every day, including street signs and board games all clearly labelled in English.

“Well done, very well done, you’re getting very good at this,” says Pinto as she watches one of her students slowly print her name on a small whiteboard.

The exercise of the day is to get them to print their names and home addresses clearly.

“Remember, two words not one,” she says, referring to the space between both the first and last name.

The instruction comes quite naturally to Pinto, although these particular students are not typical.

In fact, most are struggling to learn English and many have had very little formal education. And all are adults.

For the past 18 years Pinto has been an educator with the Delta School District, the last four with the Strong Start Program, a family education program funded by the Ministry of Education, teaching preschool students the basics of reading, writing and communication.

The free service is designed to provide early learning skills for both children and their parents from newborns to five years old, as well as teaching parents how to support their child’s learning.

However, at the end of the last school year, many of the caregivers came to Pinto upset their children would be moving on to elementary school and they wouldn’t be coming back to the Strong Start classes anymore.

Having been coming to class with their children for a number of years, many had built a tremendous sense of community within the program.

They would often walk their children or grandchildren to school in the morning or would be there to pick them up at the end of the day, but with limited English, had a hard time understanding what their children were learning in school.

So in September, the Delta School District and the Delta Community Literacy Committee partnered to make a Strong Start program for adults a reality.

The program takes place two days a month in a classroom at Hellings Elementary.

Since September, the number of adult students has increased steadily from three grandmothers to 20 women. Some mothers participate, as well offering help translating.

“The majority are grandmothers from the South Asian community,” says Pinto, noting women from Nigeria, Japan and China have also shown an interest in getting involved.

After spending an hour or so practicing the spelling of their names the group takes a break to enjoy a cup of tea and some Indian sweets, another chance to socialize and practice their English before beginning another word game

Pinto is trying to expose the grandparents to games and activities that are common in Canada, after many of the woman expressed a desire to understand Canadian culture. At Halloween this year they carved a pumpkin – something most had never done before.

Some are now even volunteering in school classrooms as well.

Recently one of the grandmothers came to Pinto to express her satisfaction with the program. Previously she would wait outside her grandsons classroom hoping to participate in his class, but never went in.

“When she came to this class she was crying with joy that she was finally in school,” said Pinto, “she even brought her grandson to me one day and said, ‘see this is my teacher’.”

The grandmother wanted to be able to write her own name before she died.

“And now she can,” said Pinto.

“But I told her you’re not ready to die yet,” she says with a laugh. “My real plan is to boost their confidence and their self esteem.”

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