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Steps to College keeps focus on English skills

Steps to College
Liliana Navarrete (left) and Jackie Briceno (center) of Banks County High School listen as Teaching Assistant Edison Puccio (right) helps them understand a mathematics concept during the Steps to College math course.

Eleven students in a University of North Georgia (UNG) classroom listened as math teacher Jerry LeSage discussed real-world applications of finding probabilities. To the casual observer, it could be a typical college class, except that it's summer, the students are high schoolers, and English is not their primary language.

Nearly 100 students are part of UNG's Steps to College program, which helps bridge the school-year gap between spring and fall to help students keep their English skills strong. The for-credit program, offered on UNG's Gainesville Campus, was developed in response to requests from area school systems.

"We began the program in the late 1990s, when ESOL (English to Speakers of Other Languages) teachers in Hall County contacted us to see if we could provide a program to help their English learners maintain progress during the summer," said Dr. Harriett Allison, UNG's interim associate vice president and dean of the University College. "We determined that to help these students maintain their skills and graduate on time, they needed to be learning English while also learning other content in English."

Enhancing partnerships with k-12 schools and improving college access and completion for students traditionally underserved are two goals of UNG's Complete College Georgia plan. The statewide initiative aims to increase the percentage of Georgia's population with some level of college completion from 42 percent to 60 percent to meet projected workforce needs. 

At-risk populations, such as English language learners, need better preparation for connecting to, engaging in, and navigating college. Allison said that exposing these students to a collegiate atmosphere during Steps to College often interests them in pursuing post-secondary education.

Allison co-directs Steps to College with Dr. Carlise Womack Wynne, Dr. Sheri Hardee and Ashley Armour. The program serves students from Gainesville and Hall, Forsyth, and Banks counties. Students completing the one-month program earn half a Carnegie unit, and can attend during a second summer to earn one full credit; students in the math courses must attend for two summers.

"That first summer we offered a U.S. history class and 40 of 44 students passed," Allison said. "We are currently holding eight classes, and have had as many as 150 students some summers. We try to keep the classes small, and we make sure to have a UNG student in the classes to serve as a teacher's assistant and mentor to the other students."

Two Banks County students in LeSage's math class said that the small class size and the teacher's assistant were two of the biggest factors in helping them learn.

"Everyone is very helpful, and the learning here is much more hands-on than during our normal school year," said Liliana Navarrete, whose first language is Spanish.

Edison Puccio, a junior at UNG, is pursuing a degree in math with a teaching certificate, and is a teaching assistant to LeSage, an ESOL-endorsed teacher in Fulton County. Puccio said Steps to College is an invaluable opportunity to help him gain teaching experience.

"This is much more interactive than standard teaching, and gives me great experience at the high-school level, which is where I want to teach," Puccio said.

This summer's program includes economics, language arts, writing, and civics, which Allison said several schools specifically requested.

Pam Wisecup, an ESOL-endorsed teacher from Banks County, is teaching a Steps to College civics class to many of the same students she instructs during the school year. Among the subjects she is helping her students to understand are the causes and purpose behind the Declaration of Independence.

Many of the students said they enjoy being on a university campus.

"I would be interested in going to school here," said Monika Vlad, a junior at South Forsyth High School, whose first language is Ukrainian. "Right now I'm just trying to get as many credits as possible. I haven't decided what I want to do yet, but it's possible I may want to be a lawyer."

Steps to College is funded by the Goizueta Foundation through the UNG Foundation, with area school systems providing transportation.

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