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October 24, 2014

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Schools give Spanish-speaking adults primer in own language first

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Steve Marcus

Hector Godoy teaches a free class in Spanish literacy Tuesday as Maricela Bolanos, 53, watches. Rooted in the idea that immigrants must be literate in Spanish before they can learn English, the adult learning program uses public and private money and materials donated by the Mexican government.

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Eva Leticia, 23, works on math problems during a free class Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009. A school district program with private foundation money uses Mexican government-supplied materials to teach functionally illiterate parents to read and write in Spanish. Launch slideshow »

Hector Godoy stands in the rear of a trailer converted into a classroom, drawing lines on a board between the letter “p” and each of the five vowels.

He asks one of his 13 students, Maricela Bolaños, to sound out a series of words using those letters. Bolaños is learning to read and write, in Spanish, at 53 years old.

Her class is a “plaza comunitaria,” a program within the division of the Clark County School District that is aimed at teaching English to adults. The plaza’s unlikely home in that division stems from a discovery academics made earlier this decade: If Hispanic immigrants are to learn to read and write English, they must first be literate in their native language.

The curriculum comes from Mexico, and the U.S. Education Department and private companies cover the cost of the program. School District teachers lead the program in district classrooms.

The students are also offered a chance to complete studies from elementary to high school, also in Spanish.

Scenes like this are playing out at six other “plazas” in Nevada — in community centers, churches and nonprofit organization offices — and in at least 32 states nationwide. Some states have had the program for nearly a decade. The School District’s is in its second year.

The programs have no shortage of potential students: About 40 percent of Mexican immigrants older than 24 have less than a ninth grade education, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

Obtaining an elementary-school-level foundation in Spanish proves useful in learning English because students obtain a firmer grasp of grammar and more confidence in their ability to learn a second language, says Manuel Ramirez, coordinator of the School District’s plaza.

The district supports the idea, as well as adult English-language classes, because they transform parents into better sources of help with the work their children bring home from school, says Priscilla Rocha, who oversees the adult English language services division.

The Mexican government supplies the plaza’s curriculum online and in textbooks for free. The federal government and a private company in Mexico fund the School District’s program and LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens, has donated computers. Last year 75 students enrolled in Rocha’s four classrooms; now there are 115. About one in 10 are functionally illiterate.

Some enroll simultaneously in the adult English classes offered by the School District. Others wait until they acquire confidence in writing and reading Spanish before taking on English through the School District, the library or other programs.

But although all students are encouraged to use their Spanish-language studies as a springboard for learning English, not all do. About half may be drawn to the program to understand math and other subjects well enough to help their children with homework, or by the desire to be a student again, in many cases after decades of working full-time jobs, Ramirez says.

The program’s coordinator recognizes that the plaza may be controversial, both because it involves the Mexican government and because it is in Spanish. The immigration status of participants is not checked.

That’s not the issue for Ramirez. The issue for him, he says from behind his desk, is “they’re here,” meaning, the Las Vegas Valley’s Hispanic immigrants. In Southern Nevada, 28 percent of the total population is Hispanic and about 75 percent of that population is of Mexican descent, according to Census estimates.

“Isn’t it better,” Ramirez continues, “if they are studying? If they study, they become more productive members of society, even if it is in Spanish — and our goal is that they don’t stay with Spanish-language studies, but go on to English.”

Juan Salgado, who has directed one of the nation’s first plazas in Chicago since the beginning of the decade, says he has seen benefits in the program ranging from greater ease in learning English to the “X-factor” of providing a positive role model to sons and daughters.

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Maria De Jesus Esparza Castillo, 57, works on a writing exercise during a free class Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2009. A school district program with private foundation money uses Mexican government-supplied materials to teach functionally illiterate parents to read and write in Spanish.

In the valley, Tuesday’s class at the trailer outside Sunset East High School included Maria de Jesus Esparza Castillo. She’s 57. The last time she sat in a classroom was in second grade, in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

“My family thought I didn’t need to study, as a woman who would just grow up to take care of the house and the children,” she explains.

As an adult in her 40s, she found herself in Las Vegas, a single mother in need of a job. She washed dishes. She worked as a prep cook. “I worked to take care of my daughter and never had time to study,” she says.

Now she walks with a limp, the outcome of a car accident last year that sidelined her from work — and brought her to the program.

Her daughter is now grown and with children. Esparza Castillo wants to understand how words and sentences are built — in Spanish. Then she wants to turn to English.

She mentions her grandsons, who speak English around her in order to “get away with things,” a situation she would like to change.

Minutes earlier, she had been copying words in neat handwriting, free of flourishes. “Now I know what a verb is, what a subject is,” she says.

Three seats down, Ermila Carrasco was answering questions at the end of a chapter on natural sciences.

She is 25 and finished junior high school in Juarez before coming to Las Vegas five years ago. She also went straight to work, as a cashier in a swap meet. Carrasco is using the plaza’s curriculum to finish high school. She also hopes the classes will help her conquer the frustration of being unable to help her 13-year-old sister with middle school homework.

“She always says, ‘You don’t know anything,’ ” Carrasco says. After obtaining her GED, Carrasco hopes to improve her English as well.

Ramirez says many of the plaza’s students have children or family members in the School District and face two barriers when it comes to helping them with homework: language and lack of familiarity with the subject matter.

Maria Ybarra Gaxiola earned her middle school diploma at 45 last spring. She also continues to study English, which she says is easier for her to understand than speak. Recently her son, Eleazar, brought an assignment home from his 10th grade math class at Las Vegas High School.

“He had to measure the area of a rectangle, but he had forgotten the formula,” Ybarra Gaxiola recalls. She had gone through similar math problems last year. “Together, we were able to figure it out.”

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