Anna Helzer helps Alexis Ibarra solve math problems during a session of a family literacy program offered by Lincoln Literacy. / Photo by Michaela Odens

By Michaela Odens

It’s after school, in the library of Roper Elementary, and several pre-schoolers sit on the floor playing with Legos while school-age children play educational games on computers. In the corner, a fussy baby is being bounced in the arms of a young volunteer. Across the room, two women talk about the day’s upcoming lessons.

Down the hall, away from the noisy little ones, eight refugee and immigrant parents work hard to master English so they can more better provide for their children.


Younger children in a family literacy program play with Legos. / Photo by Michaela Odens

The parents and children are participating in the Family Literacy Activities for Immigrants and Refugees program, established by Lincoln Literacy in 2007 to provide literacy classes for immigrant and refugee parents while offering free educational childcare for their children. Transportation to the 11 locations the program is offered also is provided.

FLAIR is just one of the programs Lincoln Literacy offers annually to more than 1,000 people, 90 percent of whom are refugees and immigrants. More than 300 volunteers help provide a variety of English language learning services.

FLAIR aims to teach children language skills as well as science, technology, math and behavioral skills, said Bonodji Nako, the family literacy coordinator at Lincoln Literacy.

“Some of these kids are just entering school as kindergartners, others are new to American schools, so we incorporate LPS behavior standards into our own classes to help kids get used to school expectations,” she said.

On this day, Nako was helping 7-year-old Fabian Ibarra boot up a new laptop and log onto freerice.com, a charitable website with educational games. For each correct answer on this site 10 grains of rice are donated to people in need. Nako helped Fabian set a rice goal to reach for each subject before moving on to another and asked him about why he thought it was important that they were using this particular site to learn.

“The ones in need are more important than the ones who already have stuff,” Ibarra replied.


Bonodji Nako, family literacy coordinator for Lincoln Literacy, sets up laptop for Fabian Ibarra while another volunteer tends to a younger child. / Photo by Michaela Odens

Nearby, Anna Helzer, a freshman Spanish education major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, shares with other volunteers a new idea for helping the kids learn English. She had large Lego blocks with words on them and smaller blocks with single letters so her mentee could stack small blocks to recreate the words found on the larger blocks. Helzer had also drawn pictures of the words featured on the blocks.

FLAIR has a semester schedule with summers off, similar to the schedule of LPS. The program has measurable goals for students but tries to minimize formal testing. Instructors fill out behavior profile sheets each month, stating how well students exhibit certain behaviors, such as participation, following directions and playing well with others. Instructors also fill out a sheet reporting literacy and numeracy skills and explaining how each student prefers to learn, whether they are a visual, verbal, written or hands-on learners.

Nako said that this is what makes FLAIR unique.

“We teach a la carte. We watch our kids for the first two to three weeks and then set routines based on their individual needs.”

According to Lincoln Literacy, immigrant and refugee children can face extra hardships that can stand in the way of their education. First-generation Hispanic students have a 13 percent lower graduation rate than the overall LPS graduation rate and it is likely this statistic applies to refugee students as well.  FLAIR’s goal is to help LPS close this gap.

Parents can contact Lincoln Literacy to enroll themselves and their children in classes.

Learning outside the program

As parents came down from the end of the hall to pick up their children at the end of the day’s class, Nako encouraged the kids to take home one of the free books that FLAIR provides.

“We only see them once a week,” Nako said. “So we encourage the parents to take a book to read to their children so that the parents and the kids are learning together, even when they’re not in class.”

Meanwhile, Helzer gathered up the Legos with words and letters written on them. She spoke fondly to Nako about her five-year-old mentee, whom she meets with for an hour and a half every Thursday and of the bond they have been able to build during the last two months.

“When we first met she would hardly talk at all,” Helzer said. “Now when she first sees me every week she runs up and tells me all about her week in really fast Spanish. I can’t quite catch it all but it’s so nice to see that she’s becoming more confident.”