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LEAP Returns!

Students studying in an after school program

This is a caption positioned off a photo

Spring 2020 will see the return of the Language Enhancement and Afterschool Program (LEAP) to the Western Carolina University community. The LEAP was developed by the College of Education and Allied Professions (CEAP) and the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) at Western Carolina University (WCU) in partnership with Jackson County Public Schools (JCPS), Cullowhee Valley School (CVS) and Cullowhee United Methodist Church (CUMC) to provide a safe space for students in an afterschool setting, and also provide needed help with English language development.

The mission of the LEAP Program is to provide high-quality afterschool programming for students who are learning, or have learned, English as a second language, and who would benefit from language acquisition skills support, while also engaging parents in the educational process through meaningful activities for the whole family to scaffold and prepare students and their families for school and for life. All partners (WCU, JCPS, and CUMC) are committed to sustaining a program that yields long-term success of the children and families enrolled in the program.  

Historically, the LEAP program was funded through a time-limited grant. When the funds ran out in 2017, the program began a search for new funding. In 2019, College of Education and Allied Professions Dean Kim Winter and David Reeves, CUMC minister applied for a Duke Endowment Grant. Formed in 1924, The Duke Endowment, “has worked to help people and strengthen communities in North Carolina and South Carolina by nurturing children, promoting health, educating minds and enriching spirits.” The Duke Endowment has awarded more than $3.7 billion in grants since its formation, with 46% supporting higher education, 32% health care, 12% rural church, and 10% childcare. The Duke Endowment awarded the LEAP Program $120,000 in grant funding over three year. With that funding, a new LEAP director, Juan Díaz Juárez, was hired. The remaining funds needed to operate LEAP are in-kind, with multiple units across WCU pooling resources together for supplies and academic tutors. Dr. Eleanor Petrone, Associate Professor of English, and Director of WCU’s TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) program at WCU, oversees this inter-departmental partnership.

The LEAP program specifically targets kindergarten through eighth graders from CVS. All LEAP participants are currently or have been enrolled in the ESL program at CVS. Students are bussed from CVS to the CUMC on the WCU campus every Monday through Thursday. Activities include homework help, speaking practice, clubs, games, and other activities. Both Díaz Juárez and Petrone will work together to create curriculum, interface with parents, and supervise student workers and volunteers. LEAP is designed to be a community program, and desires to not only include the parents in decisions, but to also respect the culture of participants and invite them to share their experiences.

LEAP students are primarily Spanish-speakers, although there is also a growing Arabic population at CVS. The program will maintain a close relationship with the ESL (English as a second language) teacher at CVS, to ensure that the program remains focused on the children’s needs. As well as language enrichment, the LEAP program will offer students the opportunity to engage in club activities. In the past, these clubs have included Zumba, soccer, cooking classes, walking club, origami, and computer lab. The new clubs will be determined based on the interests of the students and the abilities of the volunteers and staff.

One goal of LEAP is not just to educate the student participants, but also for them to teach the volunteers and staff. Díaz Juarez stated that he wants the program to be an environment where “everyone can learn, whether you are learning as a teacher or as a student.” Most of all, LEAP is about community. Díaz Juarez wants the students to not only feel supported, but to also feel respected; to see WCU and the college environment as someplace that they could be one day, and be successful. He desires for the program to not just be about the Spanish language or the English language, but rather for participants and staff to, “Generate our own language, the LEAP language. Not just, ‘you are my teacher’, but ‘you are part of my community, part of my family, my LEAP family.”

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