• Sophomore biochemistry major Evan Perkins works with a bilingual student at Annie Purl Elementary School.
    Sophomore biochemistry major Evan Perkins works with a bilingual student at Annie Purl Elementary School.

Nearly 75 local elementary students are getting a leg up on basic reading and math literacy thanks to a new program being offered by Southwestern students this semester.

The program was conceived by Brian Dawson, the former principal of Annie Purl Elementary School, and Laura Senio-Blair, head of the Spanish Program at Southwestern. It was put together by Frances Cantu, the bilingual kindergarten teacher at Annie Purl, and has been coordinated by Southwestern’s Office of Civic Engagement.

As part of the program, all Southwestern students taking Spanish III spend an hour a week tutoring students in Annie Purl’s Bilingual program – in Spanish.

“Even though Spanish is the first language for these students, they still need help speaking it,” Cantu said. “They also need help with numbers and counting.”

Cantu and the Bilingual team at Annie Purl developed a basketful of fun but educational activities the students can do together each week. The elementary school students are allowed to pick the activity they want to do from a basket outside their classroom. Activities include adding up the dots on some dominoes, practice telling time, learning the letters of the alphabet or categorizing a bag of figures by shape and size.

“The kids love having the relationship with their tutors,” Cantu said. “The program is definitely giving them motivation to do better.”

The program also provides an opportunity for Southwestern students to apply what they have learned outside the classroom.

“The program has been a great opportunity because not only are the kids learning from us but we are also learning from them,” said Evan Perkins, a sophomore biochemistry major. “Being with the kids forces us to use the knowledge we have in Spanish to be able to communicate effectively. The tutoring sessions give us 30 minutes or an hour more of speaking and hearing Spanish than we normally would have if we just went to class.”

Katy Ross, who is teaching Spanish III at Southwestern this semester, said the program shows her students how important being able to speak Spanish is. “I sometimes think that students forget that Spanish is a useful, everyday tool − not just something they have to memorize for a test,” she said.   

Students participating in the program have to write various journals about their experiences with the students at the elementary school. They also spend time in class talking about problems that have come up with their students.

“A lot of the focus of our Spanish classes is around the connections language makes − culture, community, communication − and the program with Annie Purl exemplifies these connections,” Ross said.

Fourteen of the Southwestern students participating in the tutoring program volunteered to be at Annie Purl’s annual Bilingual Family Night in March, which is known as “Festival Hispano.” The event features live music, food and guest speakers of interest to the Hispanic community.

Cantu said she hopes that the program could be expanded to include students in the school’s general education classrooms.