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Sugar House Journal

Parents work to build bridges with students and refugees

Apr 03, 2017 09h41 ● By Natalie Mollinet

Lisa McConkie and two of her kids help out with reading in Elaine Toronto’s ESL class. (Elaine Toronto/ESL Teacher).

By Natalie Mollinet | [email protected]

Moving into a new country can be an experience filled with both anxiety and curiosity. At Highland High, parents have started to reach out along with their students to the refugees at Highland High in the ESL classes, whether it’s through reading, tutoring or just playing games to build connections between students.

“We’re a group of four moms who got together and knew there was possibly a need,” Mindi Rich, a mother of two Highland students said. “We really wanted to involve our kids and connect them more with people and kids that they wouldn’t normally connect with.”

Rich said she decided to give the school a call to see what they could do and luckily for her and the other mothers, they met Elaine Toronto, the ESL teacher at Highland who found the right place for them.

“I was thrilled to hear that moms in this community wanted to come in and support these kids,” Toronto said. “My students come with such a wide range of abilities, and from countries where the quality of education ranges from excellent to barely an educational structure.”  

Toronto has about 30 kids in her ESL class coming from Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Tanzania, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, Venezuela and Thailand. Some of their parents were refugees from Burma or Myanmar and some of the kids were born in refugee camps.

The mothers have been meeting with the refugee students almost every school day, and have been tutoring them. They are trying to find ways to get their students involved since most times both the refugee students and Highland students are in class. They have started a lunchtime group called “The Exchange Club,” to share stories, food and culture.  

“Our eyes have really been open to how much need there is for connecting and not just learning,” Rich said. “The kids are eager to become good students and become integrated into the system and get employment. They really want to learn.”

For many of the refugee students it’s hard to get involved in school programs because their GPA’s don’t meet the requirements, and because of this they have a hard time meeting other students. While the mothers are there, they help them learn to read and tutor them in many basics so they can learn English and build their GPA.

“They are very friendly towards them and polite,” Toronto said about how the students act with the teachers. “I now have mothers that are coming in for their second, third and fourth times and that’s getting better because my kids realize that there is a staying power with these moms.”

Toronto said that a mother can work with a small group of students and help them with their pronunciation, listening, reading comprehension and writing. Having the one on one is helping them progress in their education but the greatest joy is seeing the mothers fall in love with the kids who are so appreciative of them.

“What I’m most excited about is that these women are also planning activities to try to integrate my students with the regular Highland students,” Toronto said. “This is so important to cross that barrier of culture and overcome the implied fear of not being able to communicate with somebody who may not speak your language—on both sides.”

“I think it’s groundbreaking what these women have been doing,” Toronto said. “I know my kids feel a lot more like they belong at Highland High and they are appreciated.”

For information on helping refugee students, there’s a signup sheet at or contact Mindi Rich at [email protected]. Highland High also collects items that refugee students may need, including clothing, shoes, blankets, gift cards to Walmart for eyeglasses, toiletries and school supplies. Contact Christie Divver at [email protected]