Giovanni and seven other third-graders are trying to decide whom to pick for their projects on Latino heroes.

“The paint girl!” Giovanni exclaims as a picture of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo comes up on the Smart Board. He and his classmates are enthusiastic about learning, remarkable for a group of kids in school on a sunny Saturday.

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Colombian pop sensation Shakira. Benito Juarez. Pancho Villa. Los Ninos. So many possibilities.

“But what if they’re not still alive?” another boy, Manuel, wants to know.

“That doesn’t matter,” says one of his teachers, Carolina Aguero. “We’ll bring them back to life.”

For Giovanni, Manuel and the others, these Saturday morning classes at Balfour Elementary in North Asheboro are bringing their Hispanic heritage back to life. The Heritage Language Academy, a partnership between UNCG’s School of Education and Asheboro City Schools, connects them with their native cultures and their parents while helping them transfer their Spanish-language skills to learning in English.

From 9 a.m.-noon each Saturday from February through March, Aguero, an ESL teacher, and Myra Howell, a tri-lingual third-grade teacher, work with the students to build research and language skills, and help them explore who they are through historical and cultural lessons. Seventh-graders are learning next door at North Asheboro Middle School.

Meanwhile parents, most of whom are not fluent in English, work with ESL teacher Adriana Paschal in the Balfour computer lab. They are focused on building computer skills and exploring bilingual ways to learn with their children.

Heritage Language Academy began in 2009, funded by a five-year TESOL for ALL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages=Academic Achievement for Language Learners) grant from the U.S. Department of Education to the School of Education. This year, the language academy was funded by a U-STEP (the University-School Teacher Education Partnership) grant to support academic achievement of Latino students in the Asheboro City Schools.

Dr. Ye (Jane) He, associate professor of Teacher Education and Higher Education at UNCG, says the program works because it brings parents and kids together around learning.

“Many of these children are second-generation,” He says, “and for a lot of them, school is school and home is home. They may not realize how much their parents know.”

Dubraska Stines, lead teacher for ESL with the Asheboro City Schools, says about 40.7 percent of the students in the system are Latino, higher than the percentage of African-American students. Balfour is 69.1  percent Latino.

“We’re really showcasing their background,” Stines says. “The children are born here. They consider themselves American but they don’t have knowledge of their parents’ culture. We want to make them feel proud of who they are. It’s also teaching the kids to see their parents from a different perspective, crafting those role models.”

And learning is fun. Even on Saturday.

Last year, Stines says, teachers thought the sixth-grade cohort wouldn’t want to come back for another round of Saturday classes. “But once they were invited, they were jumping up and down to come back.”

Story by Michelle Hines, University Relations

Photography by David Wilson, University Relations