By Becca Taurisano
Photos by Maureen Tricase, Capture Your Moments Photography
For 36 years, Kathryn Lent has served as the Coordinator of Adult and Continuing Education in the Syracuse City School District.
“It actually fell into my lap and I could not have picked a better career,” Lent said.
The Adult and Continuing Education program is made up of 65 percent English as a New Language (ENL) students from all over the world (predominantly Somalia, Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, Burma, and Puerto Rico). In order to effectively communicate with ENL students, Adult and Continuing Education staff can speak French, Spanish, Polish, Bosnian, Somali and Arabic. Lent says one of her teachers can speak six or seven languages. It’s one way to help Syracuse’s refugees to assimilate into the community.
“Syracuse has always been a great place for refugees to come and start their life over,” Lent said. “We have all benefitted from people from different countries being here. They bring so much to our community.”
Lent said no one should be punished because of where they are born.
“Why should you be penalized that you’re born in a country that will not offer women education?” she said. “A lot of our refugees come with only knowing a spoken language. Never having held a pencil in their hand. Never having written anything. They love sitting in class and learning. They are so eager. They are so happy to be there. We really have no clue what some people go through in their lives – some of the torture they’ve been through, losing their families in war. So they have another chance to start their lives here and we can help them, so let’s do that.”
The remaining 35 percent of Lent’s students want to earn their High School Equivalency (HSE), which used to be referred to as the GED. They have 20 community locations to make it easy for students to get to the sites as many students use public transportation. They serve ages 18 and older and the oldest student to earn their HSE was 65.
“It’s never too late,” said Lent. “It’s all about making our students feel at ease. For a lot of them, high school was not the best experience — they just didn’t fit in, they found it difficult, they had a lot of roadblocks.”
Lent and her staff of 65 are trying to remove those roadblocks.
“Our case managers work with our students and refer them to other agencies in our city,” she said. “There are a lot of great agencies that can help people. If we can help connect them and get the help they need, then they will start coming to class.”
Lent’s department works with over 70 agencies to help get them support they need to succeed.
“It’s all about removing the barriers,” Lent said. “We just want to help our students become the best they can be and contributing members to our community, because it benefits all of us.”
One of the barriers students can face is not feeling accepted. Lent spoke about the difficulties LGBT students experience during high school, something she understands personally.
“I think that’s why some students will drop out of high school, because they struggle with these issues, especially those transitioning,” she said. “We just welcome everyone.”
SCSD provides an opportunity for LGBT staff and students to march in the Syracuse Pride Parade at the end of June.
“It’s near and dear to my heart,” Lent said, “It’s much more accepted these days.”
Lent planned to march with the SCSD group, but was unable to due to injury. Lent said the current school superintendent, Jaime Alicea, is very supportive of inclusive initiatives.
“The school personnel do an excellent job of helping [LGBT students], but you can’t change how someone feels internally if they are struggling,” Lent said.
Lent’s case managers work with students age 16 and up to counsel students considering dropping out of high school as well as coaching parents on how to navigate the school system and become advocates for their children in school. Many parents come to their program because they want to help their children with their homework.
“That is the best thing I have ever heard a student say is, ‘Now I can help my child with their homework,’’ Lent said. “Every time I hear one of our students say that it brings tears to my eyes. It’s powerful. It’s all about the whole family literacy aspect.”
Adult and Continuing Education had over 70 graduates this year and they walk in a graduation ceremony in full cap and gown.
“It is a unique and different graduation. It is very touching,” Lent said. “Sadly one of our students was shot in April and killed and his mom wanted to walk the stage at graduation. Everybody was so moved. My heart just broke for her. It was a special moment. His mom wore his cap and gown and his dad walked the stage as well. What a way to honor her son.”