For most of the year, school is in session for immigrants seeking asylum at Viator House of Hospitality.
High school completion beckons at formal classroom venues in Chicago or Arlington Heights. Residents coming from countries with little or no education opportunities tackle English and basic school skills through a recent initiative of Viator House. A handful of high school graduates attend community college. And bolstering it all is a volunteer corps of veteran teachers tutoring one-on-one almost daily.
Viator House is a haven from immigrants’ dire pasts and the norm of government detention once reaching this country, but it’s much more than that, said Fr. Corey Brost, C.S.V., Executive Director. “The goal was never to run a shelter, but rather a program in which young men could develop their potential while they hopefully wait for approval to stay in the U.S. Because of that goal, we realized right away that we want our young men to have the opportunity to develop educationally.”
The track record of achievement is building swiftly, especially at the high school level with one graduate each from St. Viator and Hersey, and five from Truman Middle College in Chicago’s Uptown, an alternative high school tucked within Truman Community College. The St. Viator graduate is already beginning his second year at Harper Community College. Two other Truman grads are attending Oakton Community College.
Truman is a trek, an hour and a half by van, CTA train and bus. But it has two important advantages: it accepts students through age 21, rather than 19, in traditional high school, and it works to help immigrants learn and speak English as it teaches the full range of high school subjects.
Viator House students are among a sizable group there with a language barrier in understanding directions and mastering learning skills that most Americans by their teens take for granted, said Cassandra Croft, academic adviser at Truman. English Language Learner (ELL) services focus on the learning obstacles as well as the “social sayings” and idioms that are so replete in conversational English.
Croft said a reputation formed fast when Viator House began sending students. “They come in with respect for instructors, a good work ethic,” she said. The Truman connection has been facilitated comprehensively by an “integral” partnership with Viator House’s case managers, Sr. Rayo Cuaya-Castillo and Marianne Dilsner, who already have a sense of whether a newcomer to the house needs a transition period of English learning before enrolling, and they make sure the proper registrations are done, said Croft.
Staff at Viator House keep Truman staff up to date on personal or social issues that affect studying, including when immigration lawyer appointments keep them from class, or when home crises have an impact on academic progress. Ultimately, Viator House provides the whole living and support system for success in school, Croft said. “The social work aspect to it has been so helpful in making sure that we, on our end, can just focus on the education.”
Residents who have enough education background in their home country can get into a local high school, but still need a boost in areas such as writing composition and higher math levels. That’s where tutors bring them up to speed and keep up the momentum. Viator House has used up to 30 during the academic year.
Lou Leitner, a math teacher for 33 years and now retired, worked with the student who graduated from St. Viator for a year and a half, usually Friday evenings in person and often remotely via a Facetime session. He was taking Algebra 2 but wasn’t prepared for it at the outset. Aided by her tutoring help, he not only got through that class but was able to pass a college prep pre-calculus class his senior year. He went to Harper last year and was able to do his math without help, said Lou. She also tutored eight Truman students and two of them are now attending Oakton.
Jerry Leitner, Lou’s husband and an English teacher, brings the students along in their vocabulary, writing assignments and grasp of grammar. Writing has been difficult because they have trouble organizing the assignment beforehand. Jerry emphasized first setting up an outline of where they are heading, and that has upped their game.
Now and then, he has to get students through English assignments that may be too focused on things they don’t need to know at their stage of progression. “Parts of speech are fine, but whether something is causative or not? We don’t care. Teach them how to read and write, that’s all.”
Throughout the past few years, the volunteering has become “more than just teaching, it’s developing relationships and rapport, kind of like a family away from home,” Lou said. Birthdays, graduations, even some advice on American dating have taken the Leitners to where “we’ve become friends. I think they consider us friends, and that they can call on us if they have something that they need.”
These are the residents fortunate enough to be in a position to take secondary schooling. Others are not so fortunate. For them, an internal school environment dubbed Viator House Academy was launched last fall by Br. Michael Gosch, C.S.V., program and housing director, who brought in veteran college instructor Fran Baumgartner, formerly also a St. Viator High School teacher, to devise a program of basic English and school skills. She brought in to help a former colleague from Roosevelt University, Sharon Grant.
Some of the target students “had some schooling up to about what we would consider third grade; some of them had never been to any school,” said Baumgartner. “So they did not know how to read or write. They did not know how to read an alphabet.”
Lesson plans and objectives were continually recalibrated throughout the year as the challenges piled up, she related. “We were totally overly ambitious at first. It took us a long time to understand what level they were at.” Take the concept of memorizing: “You’d put words on the board and you would think they understood them the next day.” But that required much more “repeating, reviewing” the team learned.
Originally the goal was to prepare these students for high-school-equivalency (GED) testing, but the team of about a dozen volunteer teachers realized after a few months that “you can’t go from first grade to GED,” Baumgartner said. “You really have to develop those skills that you learn in elementary school.” Next year will emphasize not just elementary subjects, but the skills to learn them, such as active listening, taking notes, referring back to them in studies.
Another option to learn English and pursue studies is provided by High School District 214 at its Forest View site. Called the Newcomer Center, it offers personalized instruction in English in concert with classes in math, social studies and reading instruction. Three Viator House residents currently are enrolled there and finding great success, Fr. Corey said.
From elementary starting points to college prep, Viator House residents are getting the help they need to jump in at their levels of ability and strive for better, said Fr. Corey. Above all, the aim is to “prepare them to be incredibly successful, contributing members of our society. We want them to be the people God created them to be, and that means education.”