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Retiree helps youths born abroad learn English


Afternoons at Fred Pausch's house are filled with sounds of dozens of foreign-born students practicing their English.

One recent day, two Chinese brothers, recent immigrants, were tackling basic antonyms and synonyms with the gray-haired and bespectacled Mr. Pausch, whose volunteer organization helps foreign-born students learn English and U.S. culture.

The word of the moment was "dark," and it was printed on a small index card that served as a homemade flashcard.

"Tonight, dark," Mr. Pausch said to Qishane Yung, 17, who smiled a lot and struggled to follow. "At 10 p.m., dark. Your hair is dark. Your shirt is light."

Mr. Pausch, a 70-year-old retired insurance company vice president, pulled out another card. Next word: "Clean."

"Clean," repeats Quili Yung, the 15-year-old brother, whose eyes scan the room to find a description.

"Your hands are clean," Mr. Pausch said, holding out his hands. "The others' shoes outside, they're dirty."

The index cards -- with words on one side and pictures on the other -- are tools Mr. Pausch uses to teach English. More than a dozen students come to his house every day for tutoring sessions and socialization as part of Up With Kids Inc., a nonprofit organization Mr. Pausch runs from his Columbia home.

Mr. Pausch started the group more than six years ago, working initially with children from single-parent homes. But interest in the program waned, and he switched to working with foreign-born students after he and his wife sponsored an Indonesian student and learned of the struggles of students with limited proficiency in English.

The school system offers English for speakers of other languages, but those classes often are not enough to teach students the language, Mr. Pausch and students say. His goal is to enrich what students learn in school and to teach them about cultural things they otherwise might not experience. Camping and trips to Disneyworld and Hershey Park are part of the program.

Mr. Pausch picks up about 15 students each day in a big maroon van, traveling close to two hours to parts of Ellicott City and Columbia. He conducts homework sessions at his house and helps students when they have trouble. His wife, a retired high school English teacher, helps students with term papers and essays.

Mr. Pausch said his greatest reward is the pleasure of seeing his students move ahead -- with the language and with their lives in their strange new world. "That's what most people like to see in their volunteer work," he said.

Students are expected to speak only English when they come to his house. Those who break the rules are penalized: Boys do push-ups, and girls do sit-ups. Mr. Pausch doesn't always catch the violators, and when he is not there, some students break into their native language, leaving others wondering what they're talking about.

Photo albums of his students through the years line shelves in Mr. Pausch's living room. Picture after picture shows smiling youths bobbing for apples at Halloween, ice-skating and handing out presents at Christmas. Gifts from students, including sketches of the Orient and little statues, and souvenirs from far-flung summer trips fill desks and walls.

Students say they like going to Mr. Pausch's house because they have friends there, others who, like them, are struggling to learn the language.

"Sometimes, I don't understand my work a lot," said 16-year-old Hung Tan, from Vietnam. "Sometimes, I get picked on" by other students.

Taiwan-born Jian-Der Lee, 17, loves the Scrabble tournaments Mr. Pausch organizes. He learns his vocabulary words that way. "Scrabble makes me think," he said.

Jian-Der is a junior at Oakland Mills High School, which his older sister also attends. His family came to the United States in search of better pay, he said. The Lees own a restaurant in Millersville, and Jian-Der often works there after school, despite having homework and tests.

After three years in the United States, how is his English?

"Speaking is OK," he said, searching for the right words. "Reading and writing is still below regular, average Americans."

Jian-Der took ESOL classes for a while but was forced out once he became what his teachers thought was proficient. "I wish I could go back," he said. "It's easier there. If you don't understand, you can ask the teachers, and they will be more patient to answer you again and again. In regular school, teachers will explain one or two times, and they say come back after school. But sometimes, I can't come back after school."

Students also eat dinner while they study with Mr. Pausch, taking turns cooking dishes. One recent night they ate rice with chicken and kidney beans, a Puerto Rican dish brought by Johana Comulada, who has been with the group for more than four years.

"I never thought I was going to be around people from other countries," she said.

Ms. Comulada, now a Howard Community College student, said she never would have graduated from high school without Mr. Pausch's help. She had repeatedly failed the state functional citizenship test, which is required for graduation.

"He sat with me, and he really helped me every time I came here," she said. "He was working with me and helping me study really hard. I'm really thankful I'm in his group. Any time you need somebody, he's always there.

"He's a great man, the best I've ever known."

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