by Marjorie Leopold

Every Wednesday 27 K-4 English Language Learners (ELLs) eagerly arrive in the Chambers Elementary School cafeteria for what they’ve dubbed “Fun Day.” The after-school program was started by UIDN and St. John’s Episcopal Church in cooperation with Chambers’ administrators and the support of the Kingston City Schools. We chose Chambers because it has a sizable population of  ELLs and no free after school option, unlike George Washington and Kennedy schools.

Our program is an “enriched” experience for the children because of the caring, commitment, and expertise of our volunteer tutors who include retired educators with backgrounds in literacy, special education, and art as well as high school seniors. Volunteers are genuinely interested in the well-being and growth of the children who, in turn, relish the attention they get from our volunteers. We strive to meet the children where they are as English-language learners and unique individuals. Tutors and children are forming bonds, and the children get along well.

 Storyteller Jill Olesker entertains children and volunteers at the after-school program’s holiday celebration.

We designed the program with specific goals in mind. Children are assigned to one of three groups based on their age and grade. Each group circulates through three structured experiences in different learning spaces designed to meet specific objectives:

  • Literacy activities for improving reading, writing, and overall academic growth;
  • Games and building activities, e.g., trains and Legos, for social and emotional learning; and
  • Creative expression activities such as art projects, salsa dancing, and improvisation.

The Wednesday program kicks off with healthy snacks followed by outdoor play. Karma, a gorgeous golden retriever therapy dog, comes to each “Fun Day,” thanks to his generous owner, one of our special educator volunteer tutors. Karma plays Frisbee with the children and rolls over to have his silky fur patted; he’s especially loving with children who need soothing.

When parents, aunts, and uncles arrive for pick up the children eagerly share their art projects or original writing, a book they read, or the game they mastered. Families know the program is designed especially with their children in mind. Our message is indisputable: we value you and your children, and we’re pleased you’re a part of this community.  Our smiles say it all.

Volunteers Needed

If you have experience and enjoy working with young children and would like to join a cooperative and creative team, please fill out a volunteer form. We know volunteers are busy people but hope you will commit at least one Wednesday a month, giving you and the children a chance to get to know one another. We will provide guidance and support with particular activities and children as needed.

The Kingston City Schools require volunteers to submit references. Both the school district and St. Johns Church recommend child safety training, which is available free from St. Johns. For details, email Michele Riddell at or text her 845-443-9821.

Marjorie Leopold is co-coordinator of UIDN’s Schools Outreach & Support Group and co-founder of the Chambers English Language Learners After-School Program. Get more school and education resources here.

Back-to-school night for activists & educators

Some 80 educators and activists from Ulster, Greene, Dutchess, and Columbia counties met September 9 to learn from each other and consider additional ways to support immigrant students and their families.

Jo Salas, a member of UIDN’s Schools Outreach Committee, opened the session by telling the group, “Our job is to strengthen what the schools are already doing, to build connections, and respond to needs.”

In future posts, we may bring you more detailed comments from the presenters listed at right, but we wanted to begin with some themes and stories that seemed to echo from every speaker and districts. We hope these ideas will help guide anyone working with the schools and young people in other settings.

Presenters included: Stacia Felicello, assistant superintendent for Elementary & English as a New Language (ENL) Education, Kingston City Schools

Juan Flores, former NYC teacher & school administrator, Columbia County Sanctuary Movement

Patty Grossman, Woodstock Immigrant Support & UIDN

Marjorie Leopold & Jo Salas, UIDN

Veronica Martinez (shown above), Kingston parent, member, Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson

Robin Osswald, ENL teacher, Phoenicia Elementary, Onteora Central School District

Shared principles

Make sure schools are safe places. Some districts, such as Kingston and Rhinebeck, sent letters home explaining that ICE may not interview students at school and that school personnel are not permitted to give ICE student records. These letters are backed up by guidance from the NYS attorney general and NYS Education Dept. Kingston’s letter can be seen here. Other districts, including Onteora, have adopted safe zone policies.

Use existing programs, but work for improvements. Kingston’s Stacia Felicello and other school staff were open about the need for improvement, but Juan Flores reminded us that existing programs, such as after school enrichment and summer school, can help students improve their English and catch up on any academics they may have missed. He advised teachers to recommend ENL students for all available programs and encouraged families to sign up for them whenever possible.

Partner with parents & community groups. Veronica Martinez stressed the need for families to be educators and for schools to recognize them as such. She also uses the skills she has developed as an activist with Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson to ensure her children get the best education available. NLMH works to empower families and improve communities and their institutions.

Acknowledge feelings & trauma. Robin Osswald, an ENL teacher for 20 years, told the group that the current political climate promotes “increasing anxiety, fear, and instability” among students and families. The result, she said, is that it can be “difficult and scary to come to school activities. The fears are real and the consequences are real.”

Learn from others. Felicello said the district learned a lot from North Rockland Central School District where students come from families who speak 31 different languages and hail from 43 countries with 35% indicating that Spanish is their home language.

Help ensure that families know their rights. New Paltz, Onteora, and other districts have held workshops to explain students’ rights and to help families plan for temporary guardianship in case it’s needed. Flores is among those available to lead such sessions. He can be reached at

Interpretation & transportation are key and pose challenges in virtually every district. While religious congregations, community groups, and activists can help fill the need for interpretation and transportation, most agreed that professional, paid interpreters are the ideal and that more robust public transportation options are needed.

Learn more

Get more resources, including sample resolutions and other materials plus items mentioned in Flores’s presentation, here.

There really was a line out the door!

“Kids are anxious because they’ve heard stories about the knock at the door.” – Juan Flores, Columbia County Sanctuary Movement

Juan Flores and Steve Spicer