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Fargo-Moorhead English tutoring program expands

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Project English
Tulasha Siwakoti resettled in Fargo in 2009 after leaving Bhutan. She now works in a Fargo hotel where a computer and software are provided to help her learn English. It's part of "Project English," which has eight language learning sites for refugees across Fargo-Moorhead.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

A Fargo-Moorhead tutoring program that uses computer software to teach refugees how to speak and write English is expanding.  Organizers say the program could become a national model. 

Fargo-Moorhead Rotary clubs started "Project English" last year to help refugees learn English more quickly.  They set up computers with the Rosetta Stone language software, and so far the program has helped 172 refugees learn English. 

It's now expanded to eight locations around Fargo-Moorhead; the computers have been installed in  schools, a public library, public housing, even a business that employs many refugees.

Heather Ranck, the coordinator of Project English, said for most refugees, using a computer is less intimidating than being in a classroom setting.  And it's much easier to find volunteers who can help with the instruction. 

"The average Joe or Jane doesn't know actual teaching methodology," said Ranck. "Rosetta Stone provides the structure, where you don't need to spend hours and hours preparing a curriculum. Volunteers ... don't even really need an orientation. It's just point and click."

Language software
A Project English collaborator holds a copy of the software used to enhance English language education for refugees in Fargo-Moorhead. Project sponsors say using computer software is less intimidating and more convenient than learning language in a classroom.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

About 2,500 refugees have settled in Fargo-Moorhead in the past 10 years, Ranck said, and most are from non-English speaking countries. 

Tulasha Siwakoti, who came to Fargo from Bhutan in 2009, works at the Fargo Holiday Inn. The hotel provides a computer so she can study English before or after her shift. 

"I know how to use computer, how to talk English, how to write application," she said.  

Learning English helps Siwakoti to do things like pay bills and track her son's progress in school, she said. 

When parents learn English alongside their children, it can also help maintain healthy family dynamics. 

Since refugee children often pick up English more quickly than their parents, they start to feel as though they have more power within their family, according to Vonnie Sanders, who heads English Language Learners programs for the Fargo Schools, "and the parent has less. So these programs that provide opportunties for parents to learn alongside their kids really help to maintain that power structure."

An important benefit of the program is that volunteers who help teach English often become friends and advocates for the refugees, said Sanders.  

Five Fargo-Moorhead Rotary Clubs contributed nearly $13,000 to launch Project English. Since the program began in March 2011, 143 volunteers have contributed 1,000 hours of their time.  Rotary Club officials say they expect the program to expand beyond Fargo-Moorhead.