Donations keep refugee reading program alive

Stern Center grateful for donations

It is not every day that an anonymous check shows up for $13,300.

But for the Stern Center for Language and Learning, such a check arrived in December. It was the beginning of a generous outpouring of money to save a specialized reading instruction program for refugee children in Burlington schools.

The program, which officials were certain would end in December, will continue half-time this spring as a result of the donations, according to Sally Conant, vice president of programs at the Stern Center.

More than $40,000 has been donated to support the reading program since word got out in December that funding was about to dry up. Yesterday, Citizen’s Bank of Williston presented the Stern Center with a check for $10,000. The Stern Center scholarship committee previously had agreed to commit $11,000 of donor funds. The remainder came from staff and friends of the Stern Center in denominations ranging from $100 to $500.

Jeanne Collins, Burlington School District superintendent, said the district is thrilled the partnership with the Williston-based nonprofit will be continuing.

“It’s had a very significant impact already with students who were brand new to the world of print now being able to read and move up in levels of literacy,” Collins said by phone last week. “The intensity of the support that they’re receiving through this partnership is helping them make headway very, very quickly in their progress in literacy and language.”

Since September, the Stern Center has provided one-on-one explicit reading instruction to more than 100 Somali Bantu and Republic of Burundi refugee children in Burlington schools. This one-on-one instruction is on top of traditional English as a second language and mainstream classroom instruction by Burlington teachers.

Prior to enrolling there, none of the refugee children had attended school; they spoke an African dialect no one in the school system spoke; and they had no written language, said Lyman Amsden, an advisor to the Burlington School Board, in December.

Last fall a $50,000 one-time block of federal money offered to the district by the Vermont Education Commissioner helped fund 60 instructional hours per week; the Stern Center estimated it put forth the equivalent of $40,000 of in-kind work and money additionally to support those 60 hours. Four Stern Center instructors instructed pre-kindergarteners through fifth graders at Lawrence Barnes, H.O. Wheeler and C.P. Smith Elementary schools.

Brigitte Ritchie, vice president of public affairs and community relations for Citizen’s Bank, said when she learned of the impending end of a program that was benefiting so many children, she knew her company could do something to help.

“We take seriously our responsibility of responding to community needs,” Ritchie, a Williston resident, said in an interview. “We’re not just a community bank; we’re part of the community.” Ritchie said she hopes Citizen’s Bank’s $10,000 donation will encourage other companies and individuals to step forward and give.

Conant also hopes the recent donations will help spur new partnerships between schools and nonprofits like the Stern Center.

“Apparently there is a lot of money out there and a lot of people who want to give to schools,” Conant said, but there are restrictions to giving directly to schools. “But they are very happy to give (money) to nonprofits” who work with schools.

Of the money collected to date, Conant said, “it’s overwhelming to us, to be frank.” Conant said the community response to Burlington schools’ needs has been tremendous.

“I think the Burlington School system needs to be given credit for all of their work … to provide a safe and enriching environment for all of the new community from Somalia.”