02/08/12 — Opening a whole new world

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Opening a whole new world

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on February 8, 2012 1:46 PM

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Alcives Perez reads a book in English during an ESL class at Wayne Community College. Formerly from Colombia, he moved to the United States six years ago.

In his native country of Colombia, Alcives Perez worked in economics. Now he has a job at Butterball.

Hugo Cruz, a police officer in El Salvador, currently works for a sanitation company, cleaning equipment.

Kpoti Adjovi relocated to the U.S. a year ago from West Africa. She aspires to be a nurse one day, but first needs a better command of the English language.

Roberto Ramirez began his education in El Salvador to become a lawyer, moving to the U.S. nine years ago to provide a better life for his family.

Teresa Audelo, a fourth-grade teacher in Mexico, might one day resume that career.

"I need speak more English," she said.

The mother of four, who moved to the U.S. two years ago, has already returned to the classroom. Last year, she began ESL -- English as a Second Language -- classes at Wayne Community College.

The backgrounds might vary, but the need to acclimate to the American language and culture are a shared concern. They need to be able to communicate on the job, as well as with teachers and doctors.

"They're starting over, requiring credentials in the U.S. They come here and they can't speak the language, they're cleaning houses," said Sonja Redmon, basic skills coordinator. "It's wonderful that they're here and they're being given the opportunity."

Ms. Audelo and the others are among the estimated 656 students since 2011. Enrollment has steadily climbed since 2005, officials said. In 2005, the program had 138 students; in 2006, 249; and in 2007, 402 enrolled. Numbers dipped to 455 in 2009, but rose to 506 in 2010.

"It's just a wonderful, wonderful program," Ms. Redmon said. "We have between 50 and 60 ESL students here every morning and then another 50 here on Tuesday and Thursday nights, a whole different group."

In addition to the day and evening sessions, the program has a satellite location at WAGES in Mount Olive, with plans to launch an additional one in that community as well as in Seven Springs.

An array of nationalities is represented. While the majority are Latinos, a growing number of Asian students are turning out, and the Haitian community and African immigrants are showing increases.

Finding instructors to speak the varied languages has been one of the biggest challenges, Ms. Redmon said. But the students make it all worthwhile.

"I can honestly say that our ESL students are the most appreciative students," she said. "They thank us every single day for allowing them to come to class and allowing us to teach them."

Karen Burnette, basic skills lab coordinator, says she wishes she could bottle such enthusiasm.

"How lucky we are that we live where we live, so that we can get the education that we have," she said. "These students are here because they want to be. They don't have to be here."

Students typically remain in the free basic skills program -- funded by the state and federal sources -- for a few months, others several years, depending on their ability to attend the classes and their individual needs.

What started out in a tiny classroom in the Walnut Building has now absorbed the school's literacy lab. Students file in throughout the morning for individual and group instruction, oftentimes in addition to putting in a 10-12-hour job shift or juggling children.

"It's very nice to sit here because the people don't feel pressured," said Perez before heading off to his full-time job. "For me, it's my personal opinion, we need to feel no pressure because when you come from the job, very tired, you need to fill out forms. ... We have to assimilate vocabulary and don't have a lot of time to study."

Ramirez said the education has been invaluable.

"It helps for my baby and job and everything, maybe for shopping. It makes other people comprehende me and I comprehende them," he said, prompting laughter from his classmates at his combined use of English and Spanish.

Ms. Audelo, in the program for a year, wanted to better support her children, she said.

In fact, the trending numbers reflect a number of parents trying to keep pace with their children, who are already learning the language in school.

"We kind of build interpersonal relationships, help them find a connection with their children at school," said Maria Abalo-Varate, coordinator and instructor in the ESL program, who said they recently added a library of children's books. "So now they're learning the books here, to feel confident with the vocabulary and go home and read with their children.

"Not only is that improving (them) but children are improving in school, so we're very proud of that."

Teresa Hernandez moved to the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago. She enrolled in the ESL class last year, she said, "for a better life and to help my children through school."

While she initially spoke little English, she says, "I'm learning more how to speak and more reading and more express myself."

Her five children, she noted, have especially appreciated her progress.

"My children are proud of me. When my little girl goes to school and said, 'Mom, read my book,'" she said. "I got little books with sentences. I read the books and they say, 'Oh, Mommy, you read very good English.' I say, 'I'm trying, I'm trying.'

"When I have homework, my older daughter helps me to say the word because some words difficult to say."

Cruz has been in this country five years, the entire time separated from his family, which includes a 9-year-old daughter. Their only contact has been "through the monitor" on the Internet, he said.

He is returning to his homeland within the next few months, he said. But not before completing the ESL class and Career Readiness Certificate, or CRC.

"When I came here, my English was very bad," he said. "My communication with people that did not speak English was hard but now I feel comfortable because at least I understand a lot. I can say something if I need, when I go out to the store or at the restaurant. It's useful."

Ideally, the ESL program provides a link that bridges the language gap in a new country. But it has also been a way to educate the county's newest citizens -- about the U.S. culture, potential job skills and obtaining an advance education.

"To me, this is my personal opinion, this is a community here," said Ms. Abalo-Varate, who moved to the U.S. from Argentina almost 16 years ago. She became an instructor in the program in 2008.

Students learn from one another as much as from a teacher, she said. And along with knowledge, she strives to instill a sense of confidence and self-esteem.

"I don't want to be a teacher; I want to be their teacher," she said. "We're working to assess people's needs -- not everybody can come out here -- whether they have a car, money for gas. We're blessed with the help of Wayne County Public Schools, doing a survey and seeing what people need.

"The message I'm trying to give to everybody, Wayne Community College is valuable. To us, everybody is welcome who is willing to learn. We're going to do what we can to help them learn."