Western Carolina University received $583,074 in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Education for an afterschool program to improve the academic skills of students at Cullowhee Valley School who speak English as another language.

The three-year Language Enhancement Afterschool Program, or LEAP, is a partnership involving the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education and Allied Professions at WCU, Jackson County Public Schools and the Cullowhee United Methodist Church.

The program was spearheaded by Eleanor Petrone, associate professor and director of WCU’s Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, and Jenny Stewart, director of student success for the College of Education and Allied Professions.

“LEAP focuses on enhancing the academic skills of participating students who are English language learners through high-quality afterschool programming, while also offering WCU’s pre-service teachers authentic experiences in working with English language learners,” Petrone said. “LEAP features a family outreach and education component in addition to the afterschool services it provides.”

The program also is designed to be a community initiative that not only includes the parents of the school children in decisions, but that also respects the culture of participants and invites them to share their experiences, Stewart said.

Despite challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, LEAP is up and running this fall, through on-line sessions and face-to-face activities at reduced capacity at Cullowhee United Methodist Church, which is allowing the program to use its space free of charge.

“We have volunteers and interns from WCU working with the students. Most of the interns are practicum students working toward a minor in TESOL through the Department of English under my supervision,” Petrone said. The program also has hired several WCU students – many of them bilingual themselves – representing a variety of academic majors to serve as tutors, she said.

LEAP is directed by Juan Díaz Juárez, who has worked as an educator and community coordinator both in the United States and in Mexico. Díaz Juárez has been instrumental in collaborating and supporting the families served by LEAP, as well as navigating many aspects of the grant, Petrone said.

“We are fortunate to have found someone with such expertise,” she said. “In Mexico, he worked on a national grant, which was sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and was honored with an award by the United Nations for improving the delivery of public services.”

For more information about LEAP or to volunteer to serve as a tutor, contact Díaz Juárez by telephone at 380-4120 or 227-2082, or by email at jdiazjuarez@wcu.edu.