Mentors needed for refugee tutoring program

In Dayton schools, 105 refugees are eligible for mentoring under federal grant.

Until three years ago, Regan Twite was never in one place long enough to attend school.

The Belmont High School junior’s family left the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was two, and landed in Dayton after a decade-long journey that included time in a refugee camp and resettlement program in Zambia.

Twite, 16, is among 105 refugee students in Dayton Public Schools who have been in the district three years or less, making him eligible for one-on-one mentoring under a Refugee School Impact Grant program. It’s a chance for students like him to accelerate their learning.

“Many kids come like in Regan’s situation, where they’ve missed school for a number of years so the faster they can get access to the content the faster they can catch up academically,” said Teresa Troyer, the district’s ESL coordinator.

The district has only 25 volunteer mentors to work with students like Regan and has invited those interested in volunteering to attend a Jan. 9 open house to learn more about the program.

“The typical refugees we have are due to war and persecution,” said the refugee program’s administrator, Hubert Matumaini, himself a refugee from Burundi.

Melissa Bertolo has dedicated an hour a week mentoring Regan since last July. They sit at the small dining room table in the Twite family’s Dayton apartment working to improve Regan’s English proficiency.

“I have homework that I don’t understand that they give me in school,” said Regan, whose first language is Swahili. “She (Bertolo) can explain it to me. She makes me understand the words.”

Mentoring is a time commitment, Bertolo said, “but once you’re here and working with a student, to see the amount of progress that someone has made is very encouraging.”

Bertolo, who is also the city’s Welcome Dayton Coordinator, said she is proud of Regan and proud of her work as a mentor. “The amount of impact someone can have on someone’s life is really important,” she said.

The program began last May. The district has received $111,132 altogether in the current and previous two fiscal years for startup costs and hiring an administrator for the program. The grant funding comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement and is distributed by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

For purposes of the grant, the district distinguishes between immigrant and refugee students. The district has 725 ESL students, but only refugee students who have been in the district for three years or less are eligible for the mentoring program. Dayton this year has about 125 more ESL students than a year ago.

Troyer says refugee mentors need to be flexible and open to new experiences. No special qualifications or certifications are required, but mentors are asked to make a long-term commitment. The longest any refugee student can be in the program is three years. The students and their families, in turn, must pledge to follow through with the mentoring, signing a “contract” of sorts with Matumaini.

Those wishing to become mentors are provided a “Refugee 101” class by Catholic Social Services and literacy and ESL training through a district partnership with Project READ, according to Troyer.

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