Extra help for young refugee students at Grant

Monday, April 20, 2009 | 11:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:01 p.m. CDT, Monday, April 20, 2009
Doug Hunt uses various literature to teach his students, one being the "English Through Pictures" workbooks. Gire Ngzihayo, left, has already progressed to the second book.

COLUMBIA — Doug Hunt sits at a table in a Grant Elementary School hallway with John and Gire, two refugees from Africa who are now students at Grant Elementary School.

“Write the sentence, ‘I am John,’” Hunt instructs. John complies, steadily crafting each letter with his pencil.


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“Now write, ‘I am big,’” the teacher continues.

“I am big. I am fat,” Gire giggles, eliciting a smile from his fellow student.

Hunt, who has lived in the Old Southwest for 19 years, first heard of Grant’s English Language Learners program when his neighbor Lisa Schenker, who also was his daughter’s fourth-grade teacher, asked him to help with a new refugee student a few years ago. That child ended up going to a different school, but this past summer, Hunt called Principal Beverly Borduin to see how he could volunteer his time with refugee students at Grant. He had recently retired from work as an English professor at MU, and he was looking to channel his energy.

Hunt recalled giving lessons to a fifth-grader whom the school system is promoting to sixth grade next year despite teachers’ reports that he has only spoken the words “yes” and “no” in class.

“I’m saying this is wrong,” Hunt said, “and I’m going to stick with this until we make some actual progress.”

Hunt said his volunteer work also is a matter of “moral clarity,” a phrase he took from Tracy Kidder’s book “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” He said it’s incumbent on Americans to help others, given the tremendous amount of resources our country has compared to the rest of the world.

“Who is more deserving of your help than a grade-school student who is a refugee from some of the most horrible fighting that is happening in our time?” he asked.

Peg Hurley, coordinator of Grant’s English Language Learners program, trusts Hunt to work independently with students.

“He’s much more determined and systematic than other volunteers,” she said. “I have very little influence on what he teaches now. He’s figured out his own way.”

Hunt said his work at Grant is a dramatic change from teaching at MU. Whereas the language skills of college students improve in small increments, his refugee students make significant leaps in progress.

Now, Hunt works primarily with three boys from refugee camps in Tanzania who now live with their families in Columbia public housing.

“From what I can tell, they’ve got this terrible education by any standards,” Hunt said. “And so what I do is to dodge around the complications of the Grant school schedule to spend a half hour here or an hour there.”

Hunt primarily works on reading and writing with his students, helping them gain a vocabulary sufficient to deal with daily situations in school. Hunt employs different tactics to entice his individual students into speaking English.

“One of the things that I learned very quickly is that one size doesn’t fit all,” he said.

It’s clear that Hunt has invested a lot of time to learn what works for each student, providing teaching materials ranging from Dr. Seuss to English Through Pictures workbooks. Still, the difficulties are astounding, he said.

“I have somebody who has the English skills of a preschooler, the emotional and social life of a fifth-grader and the baggage of a refugee who doesn’t have a mother,” Hunt said. “Who wrote the book that helps us work with that kid?”

Hunt is discussing a plan with the district English Language Learning coordinator to put in place a systematic approach for neighborhood volunteers to spend time teaching refugee children, especially because there are many people within walking distance of Grant Elementary.

“The problems of the world have come to our doorstep,” he said. “You don’t have to go to Tanzania to teach at schools, you can go to Grant school to teach the Tanzanians.”

If you are interested in helping, you can email Hunt at

This story was originally produced for the Old Southwest newsletter. For a more in-depth look at the tutoring program, visit this previous Missourian story.

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Doug Hunt April 20, 2009 | 4:23 p.m.

Laura Li's good article tells a story that needs telling. Without significant help from volunteers, I don't see how the school system can offer adequate instruction in English to some of these kids. I hope Columbians will rise to the occasion.

To defend the management at Grant School, I should offer one correction concerning the fifth grader "whom the school system is promoting to sixth grade next year despite teachers’ reports that he has only spoken the words 'yes' and 'no' in class."

The student in question spent his fourth-grade year saying only "yes" and "no." In fifth grade, he has advanced considerably. Still, he may go to sixth grade reading at a second-grade level, and another boy may go to sixth grade reading at kindergarten level.

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