116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Congolese refugee Kiruhera Nkingi, 19, feels better prepared for his last year of high school at Cedar Rapids Washington — and life after graduation — because of the classes he’s taking this summer at the Catherine McAuley Center.
Last month, the Cedar Rapids school board approved an agreement with the center — a nonprofit serving immigrants, refugees and women experiencing crisis in Cedar Rapids — to provide 10 weeks of summer programming for students entering high school this fall.
The school district allocated $25,000 to provide at least 25 English Language Learners two full days and two half days of learning each week to mitigate summer learning loss, build stronger English proficiency and literary skills, contribute to students’ personal growth and engage them in the community.
Nkingi, whose family moved to the United States from Congo in 2019, received a $75 scholarship from the McAuley Center to be a part of his school’s National Society of High School Scholars, which requires a 3.5 grade-point average or higher on a 4-point scale.
Jamie Forster, program coordinator for the center’s Learning is for Everyone, or LIFE, said the students she works are ”sharp“ and ”quick“ to learn.
“I would venture to guess everyone in this room is smarter than you and me,” said Forster, who began her position in May.
Started in 2020
The center launched the program In the summer of 2020 for refugee youth. The students met three mornings a week with a focus on English literacy, personal development and community engagement.
The program continued that fall to support refugee high school and middle school students navigating virtual learning during the pandemic. Socially distanced study spaces were created for about 30 students with on-site staff to help.
In January 2021, after students returned to in-person learning, the center began offering the Learning is For Everyone program as an after-school English language and homework assistance program. It continued in the 2021-22 school year, serving up to 30 students.
Summer school students are expected to demonstrate progress in at least 70 percent of assessed areas, including letter recognition, phonics, reading mechanics, reading and oral comprehension, writing, verbal expression and basic math, according to the agreement.
Also, at least 75 percent of the students are expected to show increased self-esteem around their learning and English skills.
English Language Learners in the Cedar Rapids district scored low in the spring 2021 Iowa Statewide Assessment of Student Progress compared to their non-English Language Learner peers.
The test, taken by students in grades three through 11, measures student performance in English, math and science.
English Language Learner students scored an average of 14 percent in English, 8 percent in math and 8 percent in science. The average results for all Cedar Rapids students was 59 percent proficient in English, 50 percent in math and 49 percent in science.
The students in Forster’s classroom speak at least six different languages. Since Forster doesn’t speak those languages, she said she often communicates through body language, facial expressions and charades — a game where a person acts out words or phrases for others to guess.
“I am learning as much about their culture as they are learning about mine,“ Forster said.
And when a student is struggling to learn, Forster said she turns it around on herself: “What are the ways I could help this individual achieve?”
‘Crazy friend group’
Kasa Mukucha, 14, an incoming freshman at Washington High School, said she is feeling more prepared to start high school because of her summer school experience.
Kasa, who is from Tanzania, moved to the United States with her family in 2017.
She said it was lonely not knowing the language but that she now has a “crazy friend group,” and they go on bike rides together. She communicates with her peers in summer school — those who have fewer English skills — with hand gestures.
Anne Dugger, director of education services at the McAuley Center, said the staff adds in some fun during summer school, with field trips to go swimming and visits to Cedar Rapids Opera and the public library.
Students also are interested in finding summer jobs, so the center is helping them put together resumes and working on their interview skills, Dugger said.
“If you don’t know the language, it’s just miserable,” Dugger said. “The idea of this is to get them into the community, make them understand they have a voice here, a role to play here within our community. They’re welcomed.”
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