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Program helps English learners take next step to college
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Elsabet Gebermeskel, a rising junior at Gainesville High School, hugs her civics teacher Kristy Smith upon receiving her certificate during a graduation event for the Steps-to-College program in Oakwood, Friday, June 29, 2018, hosted at the University of North Georgia. Steps-to-College is a summer program where local, multilingual high school students have the opportunity to continue improving their English and earn credit towards high school graduation. - photo by David Barnes

For many students, the things learned during the school year can be easily forgotten during the summer months away.

That’s why the Steps-to-College program, which provides summer enrichment courses for English-learning local high school students, was developed.

Lisa Diehl, director of the program, said it’s a “great way for them to be successful in high school and hopefully go to college.”

The University of North Georgia in Gainesville hosts the program that aims to help these students maintain their English language skills over the summer, provide opportunities for them to earn credit toward graduation and introduce them to life at an institution of higher education.  

Courses also include civics, economics, math and ESOL studies.

S2C was first held in 1999 and included 44 students. About 80 students participated this year, and there is room to grow.

But about 10 years ago, the program’s future did not look so bright as funding began to dry up.

Now, however, The Goizueta Foundation provides continued financial support. Participating school systems include Gainesville City school system and the Hall, Forsyth, and Banks county school systems.

Most students are referred by guidance counselors at their respective high schools. Many come from homes where they are expected to work to help support their lower-income families.

Khanh Tran, a rising senior at Gainesville High with musical aspirations, said the civics portion of the program had been most interesting and beneficial to him.

“I learned a lot of things in this program,” Tran, who is originally from Vietnam, said. “I made a lot of friends.”

Joseline Nyabatoni, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said learning about the different laws that exist in the United States was “weird” but helpful.

The rising junior at Gainesville High said the summer program had given her the confidence she needed to continue pursuing her academic studies. She intends to enroll at UNG after graduation.

For Myles Mann, 24, a teaching assistant in the program, the experience has been “delightful.”

He described the month-long program as a mix of summer camp and rigorous study. Most students come from humble backgrounds, Mann added, and they are ready and willing to learn. 

It’s also been fruitful for himself, Mann said, as he explores a career in teaching.

Sthefany Pedraza, also a teaching assistant, described the program as immersive, which helps allow English-language learners, many of whom are from Mexico and Central America, to catch up and get ahead.  

The lack of confidence that some of these students have in facing language and cultural barriers can be discouraging, and it’s what the program is designed to help them overcome.

“I was one of those students cast aside,” Diehl said.

Kristy Smith, a teacher at Gainesville High, said she has been feeding kids to the program “ever since I can remember.”  

“For some kids, it helps them to graduate on time,” she added.

This year, Smith decided to become part of the program. Smith grew up abroad, in places like Brazil and Ecuador, and so in addition to the Spanish language, she understands the culture that many of the program’s students are coming from.

“So because I know the students, I can serve them appropriately according to their ability,” she said, adding that these relationships are important for a program that is condensed into just a few weeks. “They’re keeping up and doing great.”