Ali Habibi (left), 11, practices kicking in the water with instructor Tyce Winter at the Brooks Family YMCA Monday. Credit: Credit: Zack Wajsgras, The Daily Progress
The Charlottesville and Albemarle County school divisions are working to bridge the gap between native and non-native English-speaking students.
Since 2015, the two divisions have hosted the Summer Immersion Excursion Program for students who are learning English. The free, all-inclusive five-week program caters specifically to middle and early high school age students new to the Charlottesville-Albemarle area and to the United States.
“The idea behind it is … that it is the pre-adolescent [and] adolescent [ages] that may not have the experiences in the summer that will help them keep learning English,” said Bev Catlin, Charlottesville City Schools’ coordinator of instruction. “We wanted to create an educational camp experience for them.” 
A benefit of the partnership between Charlottesville and Albemarle is that the students get to know other ESL students in both divisions, Catlin said. This can be helpful for students who shift between school divisions as their families move between temporary housing in the city and the county.
Most of the program’s 60 students — 30 from each division — are just beginning to learn English. Though the program is diverse, many of the students are from Afghanistan and Iraq, Catlin said. 
Program leaders provide instruction and conduct activities entirely in English and encourage the students to only speak English with each other.
The program also inspires the students to take risks.
“It’s very scary for them. If you don’t know the language [and] don’t have the opportunities, you want to sit back and watch rather than do,” Catlin said. “We want them to do.”
The students meet at Charlottesville High School for educational activities Monday through Wednesday. After team-building exercises in the morning, they research their excursion sites, study relevant vocabulary and participate in hands-on activities.
“Part of it is [asking] what’s the vocabulary, what’s the background knowledge in history and science that their peers already have and how do we begin to fill those spots and give them that background knowledge,” Catlin said. 
Throughout the program, the students work on a portfolio called “This is My Story.” It requires them to write about themselves and the different activities they have participated in. They also can include photos, drawings and other personal touches. 
Every Thursday, the students go on excursions, each one related to a different subject. One week the students went to James Madison’s Montpelier and participated in an archaeological dig. Another week, they did a science excursion at Walnut Creek Park, where they also learned to kayak.
Starting this summer, about 30 students from the University of Virginia’s teacher training program have worked with the students for 90 minutes every day. They provide one-on-one support, helping the students to learn at a fast pace.
The students recently visited the UVa physics department, where they rode on a hover board. They also did educational activities with the astronomy department and engineering department.
This summer the program also formed a partnership with the Piedmont Family YMCA and the Ben Hair Just Swim for Life Foundation (BH-JSL), allowing the students to take weekly swim lessons. BH-JSL provides the instructors and supplies, while the YMCA gives the program ample pool time.
Gordon Hair, president of BH-JSL, first approached the YMCA about bringing the ESL program to the pool. He and YMCA Aquatics Director Kendra Hogg worked together to recruit instructors and find a time for the students to use the pool.
Although many students were hesitant to get in the pool at first, all 60 now actively participate in the swim lessons, YMCA Executive Director Rachel Vinson said.
“They are no longer scared. Some of them had never been in a pool before. So now [that] they’ve had four weeks of coming into the Y and having that exposure, the fear in their eyes is no longer there,” Vinson said. “Some of them are literally jumping into the pool with excitement to start their lesson.” 
“Most of them have actually learned how to swim. … They [can] be able to swim well enough to get themselves to the edge of the pool,” said Hair. “Drowning prevention is our main mission. The foundation would like to leave a legacy of teaching every child in Charlottesville and Albemarle how to swim.”
Through their swim lessons and other activities, the program has helped the students to grow personally. 
“We have helped instill an excitement about learning. It’s just so hard when … you haven’t had those same experiences, and you’re in a classroom and everybody knows this and you don’t,” Catlin said. “Here is an environment where they support each other, they grow together and leave much more confident.”