By Sarah Sidlow
Photo: El Puente, spanish for “the bridge” is a Dayton program aimed at helping Latino children learn English
Dayton City Paper’s exploration ofthe Dayton area’s ethnic communities continues this week with the Latino community, with a focus on El Puente – an English-language volunteer program aimed at providing Spanish-speaking youth the language tools necessary to succeed in the Gem City.
The program, housed at the Hispanic Catholic Ministry at 310 Allen St. in the Twin Towers neighborhood, began six years ago. The greatest influx, however, of Latino immigrants to the region began nearly 10 years before that. Dayton’s large influx of Latino immigrants began around 12-15 years ago, with families coming to the city – like many immigrants – in search of jobs. According to Alyssa Wagner, program director at El Puente, the families that come to the city typically find work in areas like construction, restaurants, hotels and factories. Further away from the city, many may find work as migrant farmers. Many live on the east side of the city. A majority, Wagner said, are from Mexico. The rest are from countries like Ecuador, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Yet, finding employment and housing are only two of a host of challenges foreign-born residents must face. Another problem is language.
“Once Dayton had a big influx of Latino immigrants, about 12-15 years ago, all these schools were overwhelmed communicating with parents, and the kids still learning English,” Wagner said.
The phrase el puente literally means, “the bridge” – a nod to the program’s goal of narrowing the chasm between Dayton schools and the Latino families El Puente serves.
This is Wagner’s fourth year in the program, and while her official title is program director, she often refers to herself as “circus master.” She is responsible for everything from volunteer orientation to classroom management, grant writing, website maintenance and the day-to-day operations that keep this service available to Spanish-speaking Dayton residents.
The goal of El Puente is to equip children with English-speaking skills so they do not fall behind in school.
“The kids learn English really quickly, the conversational part of it,” Wagner said. “[It’s] reading and writing in English we are focusing on because if the parents don’t read to the kids very often, they’re not getting that early exposure to reading, letters and preliteracy skills.”
Wagner explained it isn’t the case these parents are neglecting their children’s education.
“I think it’s important to know most of our parents are really trying to learn English, but it takes adults a lot longer to pick up a new language than kids,” she said. “And often, when the parents are working a job or two and they get home in the evening, the choice is whether to spend time with their kids or go take an English class, and raising their kids takes priority – as it should.”
El Puente provides the tutoring for kids so this generation of students does not fall behind. Currently, the graduation rate for Latino students in the U.S. is 50 percent – an alarming national trend the folks at El Puente are trying to buck.
“That’s why [El Puente] was established in the first place – to give the kids a chance that instead of kids going to college within four or five generations, we can do it in one,” Wagner said.
The program continues to grow, this year nearly doubling the number of students. El Puente currently serves 30 students from kindergarten through sixth grade with one-on-one interactions. Volunteer tutors are often students from the University of Dayton and Wright State University, many of whom are experiencing their first hands-on program with any kids in a classroom setting, let alone those with limited English skills. Yet, the language barrier may not be the biggest challenge for Latino immigrants in Dayton.
“The language barrier is not necessarily the most pronounced problem in the community,” Wagner said. “People in Dayton and organizations in Dayton are good about providing interpreters for a lot of things, but sometimes the kids are relied on to be the interpreter between, for example, the parents and their teachers.”
Wagner also mentioned the Welcome Dayton initiative, a main focus of which is to develop economic resources for immigrant families. She also noted feedback from families in her program about the city’s views toward immigrants was positive.
“We’re head and shoulders above a lot of places that are trying to pass punitive measures and make it the opposite of a welcoming place,” Wagner said.
“I will also say the families we work with are some of the most resourceful and generous people that I have ever worked with, because they know what it’s like to come from a tough situation and work with less. They make ends meet so well, instead of throwing things away, they fix them, they reuse things, they’re very resourceful. As far as generosity, I couldn’t ask for a better community to work in.”
Wagner cited the “payment” of fresh tamales as an example of the type of generosity she receives from the community.
“Food is a Latino love language,” she said. “I’m a very lucky recipient of that love and generosity.”
Editor’s note: This is part two of a 10-part monthly series about the many immigrant communities in the Dayton area. Look for the next installment of Multicultural Dayton in a future edition of Dayton City Paper.
Reach DCP freelance writer Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com