Sun Shine: ACE makes the grade for Worcester refugee students

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African Community Education (ACE) is a Worcester program founded a decade ago to help the many children in need who came from all over Africa, due to war or sickness, as refugees with their parents to resettle in the area.

Many of these kids come from non-English-speaking countries, and even many of those who’ve arrived from places where English was spoken could not manage to learn due to poverty and/or life in refugee camps.

Kaska Yawo understood, then, that something must be done.

ACE was founded by Yawo and Olga Valdman in 2006 when refugees from Somalia, Liberia and other African countries were on the rise in the area. Yawo, ACE’s executive director, had arrived from Liberia as a refugee in 1998 and knew the problems they all faced.

Kaska Yawo speaks at a Social Innovation Forum event.

Courtesy ACE

Kaska Yawo speaks at a Social Innovation Forum event.

“As a refugee myself I had challenges; due to culture it was hard for me. Even coming with a college degree it was difficult,” he said. “One has to recertify before it would work for you. I had to relocate from New York to Worcester to live in my cousin’s house, who had joined the military. I had various jobs until I got a job with the Catholic Charities in the resettlement area.”

ACE attained 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in 2006 and was quick to hold its first Spring Festival. The following year, it held its first Summer Reading Program and launched the outreach department of the organization.

“There were quite a good number of refugee children fallen into various problems, including their schools,” Yawo said. “These were children from Liberia, Luanda [Angola’s capital and largest city], Somalia, Central Africa and some other troubled zones,”

Yawo continued to hear from the state Department of Children & Families about the increasing school dropout rate among refugee children. He asserts that children who live in refugee camps miss critical schooling.

[Editor’s note: The national dropout rate for foreign-born refugee and immigrant students, according to a 2013 Deseret News report, was above 30 percent, three times that of U.S.-born white students, and twice as high as the dropout rate of native-born Latino students.]

Because of competition with American students and being placed in grade levels considered less than ideal for their language comprehension, refugee children face a daunting task.

“The children often felt intimidated and would leave school,” Yawo said. “This is what I saw, and I was moved to set up something for these vulnerable kids. I started with Saturdays with tutoring.”

ACE was born, with volunteers coming on and off. UMass Memorial Medical School students volunteered and Valdman went door-to-door registering refugee kids.

ACE helps African refugee children not only learn but develop a sense of community.

Courtesy ACE

ACE helps African refugee children not only learn but develop a sense of community.

While the organization serves more than 100 children now at several sites, it began with merely a couple dozen at Chandler Magnet School first, then after two years, at Elm Park Community School.

Their first 27 children began catching up. “We started getting African professors who were not working to come and help since they had their problem of recertification,” Yawo said.

Locations for further outreach, and to accommodate more students and programs, were added in Main South at Catholic Charities, and at the Great Brook Valley and Upland Gardens housing complexes.

Adding to ACE’s development further in 2011, former Worcester schools administrator Sergio Paez, then manager of English Language Learners and Supplemental Support, approved the use of the basement of the Fanning Building, the WPS adult learning center on Chatham Street. Yawo and his team stood strong to renovate the basement with student volunteers and staff.

The space at the Fanning Building allowed ACE to again have all its services under one roof.

ACE is more than reading and writing -- it's educational programs span a wide spectrum.

Courtesy ACE

ACE is more than reading and writing — it’s educational programs span a wide spectrum.

Today, there are 68 students involved in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Yawo reports that they have been successful in developing the skills of their students.

ACE claims 98 percent of its students graduate from high school and 90 percent have gone onto college.

“I first joined ACE in 2008 with a little English,” said Tereza Ngendahorruri, an ACE alumni, staff member and volunteer. “I have been active and eventually became versatile in English. Attending programs and studying with ACE made me get good grades. I convinced some friends to come and taste the goodness at ACE.”

Yawo further counted successes in getting support for its programs. The ACE outreach workers are critical to assessing how the program can help students and parents.

Yawo said he believes the programs have in some ways even helped fight crime, and helped children understand the true meaning of living in America by keeping students off the street and doing their homework, and exposing them to leadership training and the potential of college.

ACE_IMGP1592They also discuss disciplinary activities with parents. The program employs a Worcester Public Schools liaison — currently Frank Murphy — tasked with checking in with the children’s schools and counselors to ensure attendance, monitor progress, and assist parents in communicating and working with school officials.

The mentoring program has helped children copy good examples to succeed. “We create positive thinking, leadership and love in the children to become successful citizens at the end,” Yawo said.

ACE thought leaving the parents behind would not be a good idea because they are also in need of assistance. The organization created an ESL class for them and a Citizen Class to help them pass their naturalization tests. This is not without its challenges.

“Many have passed through ACE and are now citizens,” Yawo said.

Referrals from and collaboration with the state DCF led ACE to add two teachers for the preschool program, which was created for clients who may have young children or babies. They cater for those with babies so that they can study while their infants are engaged constructively.

“We have been selected for the Social Innovation Forum, they are responsible for social coaching. There is no doubt we have a powerful team,” Yawo said.

ACE holds an annual spring festival and other events to raise awareness and funds.

Courtesy ACE

ACE holds an annual spring festival and other events to raise awareness and funds.

“Our kids have excelled in a lot of areas. Many have left the street; about 50 to 60 kids come for the afterschool program weekdays from 2  to 6 p.m., Saturdays 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., to do their schoolwork.

“They also do college preparedness. Sixty-seven have graduated so far and some went to college, a few graduated last year. Some are first-generation college students in their families.”

Despite ACE’s successes, it still has some funding problems. Yawo said the more funds they have, the more children can attend.

“We have some on waiting list. I am appealing to Massachusetts, individuals, communities to help.” he said. “Last year, we had 205 volunteers and we served 230 to 250 kids and their parents. We hope someday to have our own place where Africans can call their own.”

This article was originally published in the June 19, 2016 edition of the Sun.

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