Four mornings a week, the Church of the Redeemer on Cold Spring Street will hum with human voices and excitement — but not from prayers or sermons. Instead, newly settled refugee mothers will bring their children the church for a special English-learning class.

Started by the Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services last year, the mother/child program offers separate but simultaneous English as a second language lessons for preschool-age children and their mothers, who might otherwise be excluded from such opportunities because of the need to care for their children.

“[Previously], they weren’t served by any English class because they didn’t have the child care resources … and had to stay with their children,” said Jennifer FitzGerald, a professional ESL teacher in charge of training volunteers for the program. “This program was started as a way to fill that critical need, to help them get out of their houses, get more comfortable with New Haven and communicate with other people.”

Children’s classes are held in the basement, where a large room was converted into a playground with toys and bookshelves, while their mothers sit in a different room to prevent distraction.

But during Wednesday’s lesson, only one mother was in the classroom, reading a newspaper with the help of a volunteer. FitzGerald was only slightly surprised. She said it has been a challenge maintaining consistent classroom attendance.

One reason is that the women often come in groups, she said, and when one of them makes a schedule change, the rest are also affected.

“It’s often when one person can’t come because of a doctor appointment, then three people can’t come,” she said.

This pattern is rooted in the challenges the women face in navigating the city’s public transportation system. It can often be intimidating for a woman who speaks only halting English to decide the right bus to take, communicate with the bus driver and get off at the correct location, all the while keeping track of several babies in strollers, said Brenda DenOuden, a childcare volunteer in the program.

“[If it were me], I would be intimidated,” she concluded.

According to FitzGerald, the program was actually able to maintain stable attendance during the summer. With the help of college students and teachers who were on break, the classes ran five days a week, and the women could help each other by riding the bus together, which got them accustomed to the daily schedule. Now, the organizers are able to offer only two sessions a week for each mother and have to spread the lessons out in three different schedules, FitzGerald said.

This problem points to another major challenge: a shortage of volunteers, particularly those able to teach children. While a volunteer can teach many mothers, the current 15 childcare volunteers can only serve at most 45 kids, according to FitzGerald.

And the demand is much greater. FitzGerald said the program maintains a priority-ranking list, which takes into account factors including years of residency, the mother’s employment plan and special family conditions. At the moment, 49 of the children on the 110-child waiting list have received lessons through the program, FitzGerald said.

Still, the program has made significant progress in preparing refugee mothers and children for life in the United States, especially by reducing the number of preschool-age children who are not receiving any education, DenOuden said.

Carol Poling, a retired teacher and volunteer at the program, was especially proud of the woman she was tutoring that day.

“She was very motivated, and she recognizes that she is making progress,” Poling said.

Poling also discussed several heartwarming experiences she had with her students. One time, she said, the students held a baby shower for a woman who was pregnant, and every single person brought food to share, even though no one asked them to do so.

During Wednesday’s class, one child accidentally pulled the fire alarm, and everyone filed out of the building.

“You are not going to believe it,” said Poling, who was helping the woman read the newspaper. “We were just talking about a fire drill in the newspaper. It’s really real life learning.”

Malcolm Tang |