UPPER WEST SIDE — A local high school student is pushing to create an after-school program to help English language learners do better academically, feel less isolated, and gain confidence and self-esteem.
Quentin Dupouy, 17, an Upper West Sider and student at Hunter College High School, is launching ELLIS, which stands for English Language Learning for International Students, and is also a reference to Ellis Island. The program will pair high school students with students in grades K-12 who want conversation partners, mentors and tutors to help them gain confidence speaking in English, he said.
He added that, despite the diversity in NYC schools, no free program like this exists in the city.
When Dupouy moved to the Upper West Side from Paris at the age of 4, his American mother helped him master English.
He went into kindergarten fully assimilated, but only realized how difficult it can be to not have a grasp of English after he began tutoring students in reading at P.S. 163 on West 97th Street a few years ago.
Some students in the volunteer literacy program at the school seemed shy and hesitant, Dupouy explained, and he discovered that in many cases it wasn't reading, but the mastery of English that proved a stumbling block.
"I realized that some of these kids were below the reading level because they didn’t even speak English," he said. "There needs to be something that addresses that issue…that doesn’t just make these kids feel dumb."
Pondering how he could help English Language Learners, he began researching the correlation between graduation rates and proficiency in English, and found that ELL students are at a distinct disadvantage. As a result, they may struggle academically or feel bullied or left out, he said.
Under state law, ELL students receive instruction both in English as a Second Language (ESL) and in Native Language Arts (NLA), with the amount of instruction in each determined by the student's English proficiency, according to the Department of Education.
But Dupouy thinks this in-school preparation doesn't go far enough in addressing the social and emotional aspects of being an ELL student.
ELLIS is structured to pair volunteers with ELL students for an hour-and-a-half after school in a bi-weekly session that involves talking, playing games, homework help and general support, Dupouy said. Volunteers don't even have to know the native language of the students, he noted.
Pairing young people with other young people helps put the students at ease, Dupouy added.
"Conversation partnering with an adult is not really conversation partnering," he said. "To a younger kid, that’s going to feel artificial and intimidating."
Last spring, Dupouy made his first outreach attempts to a few principals in the neighborhood.
But he found "a resounding lack of interest."
Still, Dupouy didn't lose hope, reaching out to a network of neighborhood leaders and Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell's office.
"The Assemblymember is interested in the idea and is supportive of ways to help ELL students," said a spokesman from O'Donnell's office.
Having the backing of local leaders will make his next approach and introduction to local principals much easier, said Dupouy, who is looking to build a coalition of supporters.
The goal of ELLIS is not only enhancing the academic performance of ELL students, but working to alleviate the effects of bullying and isolation, he explained. Building confidence in speaking English may not erase bullying, Dupouy admitted, but mentoring sessions will help lessen the blow.
"By providing that support system and place where [ELLs] feel safe, you let out some of the tension and pain and isolation," he said.
And many times students know the right words but simply lack confidence, he said.
"The more self-assurance you have," he said, "the better one is as a communicator."
Those interested in volunteering or hosting the program can contact Dupouy at firstname.lastname@example.org.