Brothers Deng and Ding feel more confident about school this year thanks to the time they spent in a Summer learning program.
“I was very happy they attended the summer school because they learned a lot of things like English, writing and reading and got confidence,” said their mother, Achok, who fled civil war in South Sudan in 2007 and relocated with her family to neighboring Egypt, where Deng and Ding were born, before receiving permission in 2021 to enter the United States as refugees.
After resettling in Chattanooga in November, Bridge Refugee Services helped Achok enroll Deng, Ding, and their teenage sister in Hamilton County schools. But as the end of the school year neared, Sarah Pedersen, a Bridge case manager and Refugee School Impact Program liaison, also let Achok know about the opportunity for the boys to continue their learning over the summer through the school district’s Summer REACH program.
“I don’t like them to stay home, so when they got the opportunity for summer school, I loved it a lot,” Achok said. “They got to learn English, play soccer and made friends.”
The boys were among seven clients, aged 5 to 13, whom Bridge helped enroll in the six-week program.
“Students got to enrich and grow in their understanding from what they learned this past school year, as well as get prepared for entering a new grade,” Pedersen said. “All of the students who signed up were able to take ESL classes as well, and continue growing in their English language abilities.”
Deng, 13, and Ding, 10, said they improved their reading, writing and math skills during the program.
“All the teachers were very nice with me and very good and gave me confidence,” said Deng, an 8th grader this year. “God bless them all. I learned everything from them.”
Ding, who started 5th grade this month, said he couldn’t pick a favorite thing about the program.
“I loved everything – all the subjects, all the teachers, all the people there,” he said. “I learned a lot.”
Achok said her sons came home every day brimming with excitement and eager to share what they learned with her.
“They treated them very well so now, when someone talks to them, they answer,” she said. “Before, no, not even a little bit; but now they know how to answer.”
Achok said she anticipates the boys doing well in school this year because of that confidence. “I hope, I pray for God, they will do better,” she said. “They want to learn and want to study and be good and have a good future, a good education.”
Ding enjoys history.
“I like math,” Deng said. “When I was in Egypt, I was very good with math and I also like to read a lot about history and I love science.”
Facilitating educational opportunities for new arrivals is one way Bridge sets its clients on the path to success, Pedersen said.
“Education is very important for everyone,” she said. “The opportunity that come from getting a good quality education will help them later in life and help them build relationships with other kids in their community, help them feel more acclimated to life here and feel more included.”
Achok said Bridge helped her family with housing, employment, food, clothing, school supplies, and free internet resources so her kids could do their homework. She appreciated having Bridge interpreters accompany her to appointments and facilitate communication with the teachers so she could check on her children’s progress in the classroom.
“Because there’s not as many ESL kids who do Summer Reach, they get a lot of one-on-one time and more opportunities to practice and have a teacher go over exactly what they need and what they’re trying to learn,” Pedersen said. “There’s also more time to meet new kids and practice English with other kids. It helps give them a leg up for next school year and helps them prepare for the next grade.”
As part of Summer REACH’s kindergarten readiness program, two five-year-old clients, one from Syria and the other from Sudan, started school this month knowing how to write their names and count, as well as understand what a typical school day will be like, Pedersen said.
“I got to make cupcakes during summer school,” said Akram Ali, a 9-year-old from Sudan who also participated in Summer REACH. “It was a part of a science experiment we were doing. I really like science.”
Aya, his outgoing 6-year-old sister, enjoyed playing games with classmates.
“Every day, I got to meet a new friend to play with,” she said. “I also got to learn a lot more English.”
Deng, who played soccer in Egypt and has continued to play in Chattanooga, intends to try out for his school’s soccer team.
“I’m looking forward to playing soccer because it is my dream,” he said.
Thanks to Bridge, Achok said she and all of her children have a chance to pursue their dreams. In addition to Ding and Deng, she is mother to 28-year-old Wol, 26-year-old Geng, 23-year-old Pol, 19-year-old Amo, 16-year-old Atong and a married adult son who still lives in Sudan.
“Amo wants to be a dentist,” she said. “I want to learn how to drive. Here, we have a good life and it’s my desire to work hard to support my family here.”
Bridge helped her secure a job at a nearby chicken processing plant, where she said she’s working hard to save up to buy a house.
“Bridge helped me a lot,” she said. “I don’t know how to say thank you to them because we are here and we are safe. To all of America, I want to say thank you, America. You opened the door for us here to have a life here.”