Savings Lives with Literacy

SLIFE students working together during a literacy class at ELLIS

SLIFE students working together during a literacy class at ELLIS

Prior to 2013, I had never heard the term SLIFE. I received my Masters degree in Special Education, and had been working in the South Bronx teaching high school students history, reading, and writing. 

After joining the English Language Learners Internationals Support (ELLIS) Preparatory Academy, an Internationals Public High School serving immigrants and refugees of all ages and academic backgrounds, I met a student named *Ernesto. Ernesto came to ELLIS illiterate in his native language of Spanish. This was a student who came to ELLIS completely lost. Lost in his language, lost in school, lost at home. By the time I came to ELLIS, he had been working with the school’s newly employed native language specialist, for a year. Working with Sarah allowed Ernesto to start the path of Spanish literacy. As a teenager, Ernesto learned the alphabet for the first time. He read his first words, and he put meaning to them. Worlds opened for him. 

A couple months into the school year another SLIFE student entered ELLIS. *Jose came to us from Honduras (specifically a town inhabited by Honduras’s Garifuna population. His native languages are Spanish and Garifuna). He crossed the border as an unaccompanied child and spent the first few months in the United States in a shelter for unaccompanied minors. Jose attended school in Honduras until the 4th grade, and then spent time on the streets. Upon assessment, it became clear that Jose was illiterate. 

When Ernesto saw that there was a new student learning to read and write for the first time, he finally felt less alone. Realizing there are other adolescents like him – who, for whatever reason, are illiterate, gave him a greater sense of purpose. He took to mentoring Jose, assuming a role of leadership – something he would have never done in the past. 

The following was a letter Ernesto wrote to Jose:

“Miss, digale al alumno de usted que no se frustre, y que nada, que eche pa’lante, que no se rinda, que en la vida todo se puede. Me gustaría tener class con él Miss.”

(Translation: “Miss, tell your student to not get frustrated, that it’s nothing, to continue pushing forward, to never give up, that everything in life is possible. Miss, I would like to have class with him.”)

Literacy is more than learning the alphabet and how to put sounds to symbols. Literacy is about community, and saving lives. It is giving students the recognition that they matter, they have value, and that there is reason to keep pushing forward.  

*Names have been changed to protect identities