By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Beyond the glitz of Churchill Downs, in the shadow of the Jumbotron towering over the first turn, lies the “Backside,” a concentration of nearly 50 barns and other buildings that is home and workplace to nearly 1,000 people, and even more horses.
Here can be found racing outfitters and veterinary supply dispensaries, but also gardens and food trucks.
The living is not easy, and the accommodations are spartan. The workers, mainly from Mexico and Central America, sleep in simple dormitories for the most part, some in bunkhouses over the horse stalls.
In a small classroom in a low white building within earshot of the roar of race fans in the nearby grandstand, IU Southeast education graduate students Kelli Kaiser and Eriauna Stratton play bingo with a small group of workers.
Stratton calls out a word in English, and the players place a token on the corresponding word on their score sheet. Then the brave ones volunteer to write a sentence including the word on a white board.
“The pants are blue.”
“I like winter.”
“The weekend is beautiful.”
At last, one of the men cries out, “Bingo!” He writes a final sentence on the board and receives a small gift.
Smiles all around.
Serving diverse communities
The students in this class were taking advantage of a program offered by the Backside Learning Center (BLC), a nonprofit organization that attends to the needs of equine workers and their families.
The BLC provides adult education programs, after-school and summer youth programs and social services.
Kaiser and Stratton helped teach the language classes this summer, and also took part in Conversation Partners, which pairs BLC students with volunteers for informal one-on-one exchange in English and Spanish.
Kaiser and Stratton differ from other volunteers in that involvement is a required component of their graduate degree program in elementary education at IU Southeast.
As part of H520, “Education and Social Issues,” taught by Lisa Hoffman, associate professor of education, graduate education students choose a service learning project.
Hoffman suggested the BLC to her students.
“Louisville is known worldwide for Churchill Downs and thoroughbred racing, but hundreds of people who work long hours in the racing industry are marginalized by factors such as the transient nature of their work and language barriers they often face,” Hoffman said.
The partnership evolved out of conversations driven by School of Education faculty members Bradford Griggs and Hoffman, who were already familiar with the BLC. Donna Albrecht, associate professor of education and also director of the New Neighbors Education Center, recognized the potential for a collaboration that would meet broader School of Education and university goals for community engagement.
“A major goal of mine is to inspire IU Southeast students to become culturally responsive and respectful individuals who both serve and learn from the diverse communities we collaborate with,” Albrecht said. “We all have a lot to learn about each other.”
Hoffman’s course is just one part of that broader learning relationship. Albrecht has advised the BLC on curriculum development and mapping, and provided ideas on best teaching practices. Additionally, the New Neighbors Education Center has held a Family Engagement Evening for the families of the BLC to promote literacy and the benefits of bilingualism.
“Providing service learning opportunities for our graduate students at the BLC is mutually beneficial: BLC participants benefit from having more licensed professional teachers working with racetrack workers and their families, while IU Southeast graduate students benefit from the opportunity to broaden and deepen their skills working with multilingual and multicultural students,” Hoffman said. “These are essential skills that our graduates will be able to apply in schools across Indiana and Kentucky.”
Preparing a generation of leaders
Sherry Stanley, director of the BLC, was enthusiastic about the specialized teaching skills that Kaiser and Stratton brought to the classroom.
“They are really naturals and have so much to offer our organization,” Stanley said.
Their involvement, like that of other volunteers on which the BLC depends, helps the organization realize its bigger goals.
“We are confident that we are playing a vital role in preparing the next generation of leaders in our community,” Stanley said.
That preparation starts with language instruction.
“When you are in a new country, it’s like starting your life over again,” Stanley said. “You have to learn the language, learn about a new community, meet new people, while working full time and carrying the financial responsibility for extended family which can be extremely stressful. Our students and clients are very intelligent, resilient people who work incredibly hard, and due to the nature of their jobs, they are moving around to different tracks, farms or training facilities throughout the country.”
Kaiser teaches kindergarten at Maryville Elementary in Brooks, Ky. She has only a small number of English language learners in her class, but has become more aware of their situation through teaching at the BLC.
“I wanted to gain more insight into the lives of my ENL/ESL students,” Kaiser said. “This moves me outside my comfort zone—since I don’t speak Spanish, I have no idea what the equine workers are talking about, and now I know how that feels for my ENL/ESL students, when they come into my classroom.”
Stratton teaches kindergarten at Hartstern Elementary in Louisville. It’s just a few miles north of Maryville, but her class is one-third Spanish-speaking.
Besides reinforcing the importance of modifying vocabulary, using visuals and hand gestures, and connecting with students’ prior knowledge of concepts, just as she would in her classroom, the BLC experience has sensitized her further to the needs of underserved communities.
“I am in awe of the commitment the students have to learning and perfecting their English, despite their demanding work schedules,” Stratton said.
That sensitization is key to success in the program, and also in the workforce.
Research indicates that classrooms across America are becoming more ethnically diverse. At the same time, the teaching profession is becoming less diverse.
This divergence can lead to cultural dissonance, poor teacher performance and suppressed student outcomes.
To push back against this trend, the IU Southeast School of Education has embedded a diversity requirement in its curricula. Service learning opportunities like the BLC take this commitment one step further, bringing IU Southeast students out of the campus bubble and into the communities they are likely to serve.
Gaining a different perspective
Kaiser believes this placement has been an important step toward becoming a better teacher. Not only does it help her connect to students, but also to their families, who play a big role in the school lives of their children; being able to understand their lives, and their perspectives, is a big part of helping their children succeed, according to Kaiser.
“This was a unique experience that allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of language barriers and develop strategies to break them,” Kaiser said. “I can be of better service to my ENL/ESL students after this.”
Those strategies include incorporating more pictures and vocabulary into lesson plans, and slowing down the pace of speaking and instruction.
Like Kaiser, Stratton values the chance to have a significant and immediate impact on the lives of her students.
“The BLC is a great service learning site for educators, because it provides us with a different perspective,” Stratton said. “It shows us how our students’ experiences may differ from ours and how much they may go through just to be present in mind and body in our classrooms, and also reminds us how important it is to develop relationships with our students in order to be cognizant and empathetic of their backgrounds.”
Homepage photo: Eriauna Stratton (l) and Kelli Kaiser at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.