South Philadelphia: Motivating Students From Immigrant Families

Ms. Renee reading to students in CAGP's program.

On any given weekday afternoon, there are elementary school students completing their homework with the help of tutors and volunteers at the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia’s after school program. The room bursts with youthful energy when the constraints of homework can’t keep them down and many students enjoy running around and playing with friends after their work is done.

Like other after school programs, CAGP’s program is open to children in the community, from kindergarten through fifth grade. However, it strives to particularly assist young students from immigrant or refugee families, whose members may not be proficient in English or other scholastic subjects.

Located in the neighborhood known as “Little Cambodia,” CAGP’s South Philadelphia office offers various programs, including social service assistance and community health initiatives. Despite its namesake, CAGP’s programs are open to everyone in the neighborhood areas and are not exclusively for Cambodian Americans. w=500 h=281]Given the many ethnic groups that live in the surrounding area, most of the children who participate in the after school program are from Southeast Asian and Latino backgrounds. Many of them are enrolled in the program because they are not able to get homework assistance from family members, which is particularly common within Southeast Asian communities.

“With their homework, there’s a lot of math and history and we don’t know how to help with that,” said Julie Soeung, whose sons are currently enrolled in the program. “We work a lot and we just don’t have time.”

According to recent Census data, 59 percent of Vietnamese Americans and 53 percent of Cambodian Americans have limited English proficiency. Roughly 82 percent of Asian Americans speak a language other than English at home –  the highest percentage when compared to other ethnicities.

“There are all these Asian stereotypes – Asians are smart, they go to Ivy Leagues, they graduate, whatever,” said Sarun Chan, Associate Director of CAGP. “But in Philadelphia, Cambodian, Vietnamese and Laotian are the worst ethnic groups educationally and economically. We want to fight the ‘model minority myth’ and help the Asian Americans that don’t get much help at home.”

The language barrier keeps numerous Asian American students in Philadelphia from getting the proper attention and guidance needed to excel academically. Forty-eight percent of Vietnamese Americans 25 years and older have a high school diploma and only 13 percent of the same group have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Overall, Vietnamese Americans and Cambodian Americans have the lowest college graduation rate than other ethnic groups, including Latinos and Blacks.

The program may help younger students in the long run not only academically but also socially. Since the program becomes a daily routine for the students and they see the same faces in the CAGP office everyday, they can find comfort in getting homework help while still making friends.

Angelina, 7 and Datani, 8, enrolled in the program within the past year and while they admit that homework can sometimes be boring, they also have fun with the other students and will miss the program when it stops for summer break on Thursday.

“I like when we go to the park and when we make stuff,” Angelina said while playing with paper cut-outs. “I get homework help because my parents don’t know English.”

Jimmy Giang, a long-time member of CAGP, enjoys spending time with the students after they finish their homework.
Jimmy Giang, a long-time member of CAGP, enjoys spending time with the students after they finish their homework.

Jimmy Giang, one of the group leaders, works specifically with students in second through third grade. He himself was enrolled in the program when he was 9 and then began volunteering at CAGP in high school. Now in college, Giang wants to be there for the children in the same way that CAGP was when he was a young child in the same program.

“I felt like since I came here when I was younger, I felt like it was the proper place to volunteer,” Giang said.

Although CAGP gets some help from volunteers, getting financial assistance for various programs, including the after school program, proved to be rather difficult. Eddy Sacksith, program director, admitted that the organization had funding issues in the past.

“CAGP was very close to not being around,” Sacksith said. “But we’re still here and it would be a shame to not have this program because it really does serve unserviced families.”

Sacksith, who is a mother of five children, believes that a lack of youth programs can be detrimental to students’ development and that it’d be an injustice to leave behind the ones who need them the most. One of her children is a junior volunteer for the after school program, which reflects how the program acts as a family unit.

“This is like my life – these kids, my kids,” Sacksith said.

Although the after school program strives to improve the students’ academic skills, the program’s effect on the students surpass report cards and spelling tests. Providing young children, especially those from immigrant families, with friendship and encouragement seems to be propelling them in a positive direction.

Piona, 10, reads in her down time at the after school program.
Piona, 10, reads in her down time at the after school program.

The students may be happy to see their parents pick them up from CAGP at the end of the day, but when asked if they are happy to come back tomorrow, they simply grin widely and nod with excitement before they skip out the door.

– Text, images and video by Jennifer Nguyen and Taisha Zeigler.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.