Tha Neih Ciang is learning vocabulary words with other immigrant students. She's among four dozen Burmese youngsters at Bollman Bridge Elementary School, which is less than an hour's drive from Washington.
Their teacher, Laurel Conran, specializes in teaching English to speakers of other languages.
“Today we were doing text structures," she says. "I wanted them to know the vocabulary, the language of text structures, so when they go back into the classroom and work with their peers, they can do this successfully in the classroom.”
Tha Neih’s mother, Tin Iang, also practices English with Conran, only their session takes place in the cafeteria of Coastal Sunbelt Produce. Many Burmese refugees work on assembly lines at the fruit and vegetable distributor. Conran started classes here to help them learn English.
“The program is a six-week session," she says. "It is once a week, on every Wednesday from 12 to one o’clock. So every Wednesday I go to Coastal Sunbelt.”
About 18,000 Burmese refugees have come to the United States each year since 2007.
Four years ago, when a large number of Burmese refugees first arrived in Howard County, Bollman Bridge Elementary introduced intensive English programs for the children.
While the youngsters learned English, Conran noticed it was hard to connect with their parents.
“Some of them do not know the name of the school that their children attend,” she says.
With help from Lisa Chertok - a school parent and manager at Coastal Sunbelt - Conran developed English lessons to teach at the parents’ workplace. Each Wednesday, during their lunch break, Burmese workers sit in small groups with an English-speaking volunteer to practice their new language skills.
Making a difference
The program has the support of Bollman Bridge’s principal.
“I really see it as the beginning of a great partnership between a business and a school and we have just begun to scratch the surface with how that could benefit, really, the greater community,” says Jonathan Davis, who hopes the lessons help Burmese parents become more comfortable communicating with the school. “Even as simply as making a phone call to say that their son or daughter is sick, even if that is the amount of English that they have gotten from the program, that truly will help us.”
Chertok believes it's already made a difference in the workplace.
“When the Burmese employees got here, they were very, very shy," she says. "Now I find that they are more responsive as employees. They are more communicative. They are also, as parents, more involved in their children’s school.”
For their efforts, Chertok and Conran received a 2011 Community Builders Award from Howard County.
“I love this program," Conran says. "As a community we want to work together, collaboratively, because when everybody works together it is a win-win situation.”