Baldwin-Whitehall’s ESL students learn valuable language and life skills
When Bawi Sung moved to the United States in 2016, she didn’t know a word of English.
Today, on a muggy summer day, the 16-year-old sits inside a classroom in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District learning about math and science, all while perfecting her English by conversing with her peers.
She has to speak in English. She’s the only one in the room from Burma. No one else knows her native language.
“Or, I just don’t talk at all,” she said, sharing a laugh with her classmates, all of whom came to the United States from other countries as immigrants or refugees during the last eight years. “My parents don’t know how to speak English, so they depend on me. So, I had to learn English as fast as I can.
This summer, Baldwin High School English as Second Language [ESL] teachers Holly Niemi and Kate Musselman launched a hands-on, interactive six week STEAM program for their students that covers everything from financial literacy to biology.
Each week, the 20 students participating learn about possible careers in a given area and hopefully improve their language skills.
“(We) wanted to prevent a regression in academic and language skills that sometimes happens over the summer,” Niemi said.
The Baldwin-Whitehall community has had a large population of refugees and immigrants dating back to the 1990s. Of the district’s roughly 4,400 students, 368 are in the ESL program. In the STEAM summer program alone, students come from Sierra Leone, Burma, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Nepal.
The program was conceptualized out of parent-presentation night, where the teachers talked about post-secondary options for students, said Musselman, who also will be teaching at Harrison Middle School this year.
Last year the pair launched a two-week pilot program for 20 students.
“We noticed with our high school students that they don’t realize what options they have in the United States post-secondary,” Musselman said. They wanted to give them more exposure to the options out there.
This year, they teamed up with the Partner4Work Learn & Earn, a summer youth employment program.
While Baldwin-Whitehall has students in the traditional Learn & Earn program working everywhere from a local library to government jobs to daycares, these 20 students either had lower-level English proficiency or their parents worried about them taking public transportation to their employment.
Through this program, students are still getting paid a minimum wage salary to learn. They spend about four hours a day, five days a week in the six-week program.
Each week has a different focus, from science to math. Students are also learning life skills, such as opening a bank account.
During the first week of the program, the students headed on a tour of downtown with the Pittsburgh History & Landmark Foundation. They were tasked with bringing an item of cultural significance from their culture to photograph in the city.
Some brought rice and chili peppers, while others brought statues, flags and hats to be photographed.
An art teacher from Baldwin helped the students learn about photography and composition.
“We wanted the kids to learn about Pittsburgh, but we also wanted Pittsburghers to learn about the kids,” said Niemi.
Bawi photographed a student wearing a Burmese scarf in downtown Pittsburgh. She was excited about the opportunity to show it off.
“I want people in Pittsburgh to know about my culture,” she said. “It’s part of me.”
For the project, dubbed “I Learn Pittsburgh,” students wrote artists statements to go with the photographs that will be on display in a gallery-like setting in the upcoming months in local libraries.
The students loved photography so much that their teachers suspect there will be several ESL students signing up for classes in the subject at Baldwin High School next year.
Bimala Kadariya, 15, a rising junior at Baldwin who moved to the U.S. from a village in Nepal in 2011, said she’s learning a lot through the summer program. She’s getting to experience new things and enjoying the fun way math and science are being taught.
She’s learned about gross pay and net pay and how to fill out a check.
“Life in America is very hard. It’s been like eight years that I’ve lived here, but it’s still hard to make money and pay all the bills,” she said. “But I really do like it here. It’s awesome here.”
Isha Kamara, 17, a rising sophomore, who moved to the U.S. from Sierra Leone in 2018, said she too has learned a lot, “especially about the jobs and careers.”
“This is helping my English a lot,” she said.
The paycheck also is a nice perk, the students said.
Isha sends some of the money she makes to her mom and aunt in Sierra Leone and gives the rest to her dad to help pay bills.
“My dad works a lot, so most of the things he does for me,” she said.
Bawi takes half of her paycheck to send to Burma to help her grandpa. The other half, she uses to buy things for herself.
“We learned how a paycheck works,” she said. “That’s something I will need to know when I grow up.”