Literacy: The First Step on
the Ladder of Achievement
The United States is the richest, most powerful and
most technologically proficient nation in world history.
Around the globe, there are millions of people who would
give almost anything to be here because of the unique
opportunities we afford. At the same time, it is obvious
that for all of our resources and power, we fail appallingly
in many fundamental ways, most significantly with respect
to the education of our youth.
Only one in four or five US
Americans are considered “high-skilled” in
a world that everyday demands higher levels of education
and training from our workers. A frighteningly high number
of our young people—and adults—lack even
the most fundamental literacy, being able to read and
write in English.
This year, over 10,000 New York City third-graders failed
the standardized testing in math and English and are
required to repeat the grade as well as attend summer
school. In part, this reflects the continuing stream
of immigrants; who, from our beginning, have built and
strengthened this great nation. In 2000, it was estimated
that at least 1 in 7 students enrolled in NYC public
schools were foreign-born representing over 140 distinct
languages and did not speak English as their first language.
This is not because they lack the ability to learn: for
the most part, these students come to this country quite
literate and well versed in their primary languages.
Often, even if they are superior students, they are held
back several grades or placed in special track programs
due to the fact that while their knowledge of math, science
and world history may be up to par or even advanced,
in many cases, they do not speak or know English well
For the last three years,
Mentoring USA (MUSA), the largest one-to-one school
and site-based mentoring organization in New York City,
has matched dozens of newly immigrated students (aged
8–21, grades 3–12) with volunteer
mentors in its ESL (English as a Second Language) Program.
In a direct response to the high dropout rate of the
English Language Learners (ELLs) in NYC public schools,
Holly Darling of Columbia University’s Teachers
College, a former MUSA Program Manager, spearheaded in
September 2001 the new MUSA ESL Program. Since its inception,
200 ELLs/ESL Mentees have been provided with Mentors
who skillfully lead them to a better awareness, use and
mastery of the English language.
The mentoring relationship
in many cases continues for many years with the Mentor
helping the Mentee rise up the ladder of literacy achievement.
ESL-trained Mentors meet with their Mentee who are
selected by their teachers, counselors, etc., one-to-two
hours a week, tailoring their instruction to the particular
needs of the students: writing, enunciation, reading,
and grammar. Site Coordinators and Program Managers
at MUSA sites are available to monitor the Mentor’s efforts and the Mentees’s progress.
Most older ESL Mentees (ages 15+) have passed all Regents’ Exams
and many have entered CUNY and SUNY institutions. Mentors
provide language assistance to the parents and family
of their ESL Mentees as a natural progression of their
relationship with their Mentees.
Altogether, the ESL Program
is a good example of Mentoring USA’s emphasis on cross-cultural exchanges, which
is helping to produce acculturated and productive members
of American society. As we assist our youth to be English-proficient
and culturally literate, we hope you will ask yourself
how you can help the literacy effort. A Mentor’s
one hour a week may not sound like much, but when you
consider that, on the average, parents only spend 12
minutes a week in one-to-one conversation with their
children, a Mentor’s 1 or 2 hours suddenly becomes
much more significant!
If you or someone you know is interested in making a
difference in improving literacy among students, contact
us at 212.400.8278 or via email at email@example.com.
Together, we CAN make a difference…we know we
can, because we have!#
Matilda Raffa Cuomo is Founder and Chairperson, Mentoring
USA. Matteo David Cavazos is Programs Manager, Mentoring