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Educationby Bess Keller9:56 pmApr 12, 20120

At Holabird Academy, Hispanic parents seek a voice in their community

English classes help parents improve their lives and speak with their children’s teachers

Above: Helen Cruz reads in English with her son Joseph, 7, a student at Holabird Academy in southeast Baltimore.

They’ll be eating cake at the celebration, no doubt. But unlike many other graduates, the students who were to meet tonight at Holabird Academy in southeast Baltimore have a lot more on their minds than a party and the next step in their school careers.

As they mark the completion of a first-rung English class, the Spanish-speaking adults, many of them parents of children at the Baltimore city public school, will be thinking about better jobs and being a voice for their community.

“I want to keep motivating the parents to wake up,” said Helen Cruz in Spanish, her words translated by community organizer Jennifer McDowell.

“The problems are there, but you don’t even see them,” she added, indicating the uniformly cloudy windows in the Holabird classroom where she was sitting.

25 Students or No Deal

The parents’ first achievement is the class itself. The 12-week course was provided free of charge through the English Language Services division of Baltimore City Community College (BCCC).

But the class came with strings attached. The college has strict requirements to make sure its resources aren’t wasted, said Douglas Weimer, who coordinates the English services program. A class has to meet at least six hours a week. For an off-site program like the one at Holabird, at least 25 people must sign up.

That meant the organizers had to get the word out to parents and guardians of children at the school and other Spanish-speakers in the mainly rowhouse neighborhood that it serves.

They went to churches and knocked on doors. In the end, 17 of the 25 students in the class were related to children at the school, which serves pre-kindergartners through 8th graders.

Parents Challenged by Language

That’s not surprising because parents want to be able to communicate with the school and often don’t have much help, said McDowell, who lived in Southern California before taking the  organizing job with Child First Authority, an off-shoot of the interfaith advocacy group BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

McDowell said she was shocked at the low-level of accommodations for Spanish-speaking parents.

Holabird Academy had no Spanish-speaker in the office during the 2010-2011 school year , for example, and the school system has just 16 devices that allow for simultaneous translation through an off-site translator, McDowell said.

That is despite a doubling of the Latino population in Baltimore over the last decade to more than 26,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

About 5% of the public schools’ enrollment is Hispanic, according to school district figures, with Spanish-speaking families heavily concentrated in Highlandtown and Greektown in the southeastern part of the city.

Still, McDowell said, parents told her they would much rather speak to teachers themselves than through translators. And when a few met to decide what to do together, an English class was the most popular idea, said Cruz, who is the parent of two children at the school.

Cleaning Houses for $7 an Hour

Like Cruz, many of the students hope improving their English will improve their job prospects. Born in Honduras, the 39-year-old Cruz has, among other jobs here, cleaned houses for a living for as little as $7 an hour.

“But,” she said, “the minute you want to be your own boss or think about having a business, you need to learn English.”

When she printed up a card for her services, she had to give the telephone number of relatives because she was too unsure of her own ability to communicate in English. When she worked at door-to-door sales, she was afraid a householder might be “an American.”

purple shirt:  Irais Vasquez, shown here with her children Layla and Ian, was a top student in the English-language class sponsored by the Child First Authority.

Irais Vasquez, with her children Layla and Ian, was a top student in the English-language class. (Photo by Bess Keller)

Irais Vásquez, who concedes shyly that she was the top student in the class, has other reasons for becoming fluent in English.

Because of the lack of a translator, she has endured extra-long waits and appointment cancellations.

Plus, the oldest of her three children arrived here from Mexico in August. He is in 5th grade and though he has an English-as-a-Second-Language class at Holabird, most of his day is spent in classes taught exclusively in English.

“He can’t do his homework without help,” Vásquez said in Spanish with McDowell translating.

She is working on her pronunciation in the class because right now people don’t always understand when she ventures an English sentence, she said.

Vásquez walks to the class from her apartment. There are other English-language classes in town, but without a car it has been hard for her to enroll.

Parents Took Ownership

By comparison with other English-languages classes run by Baltimore City Community College off its campus, Holabird has been a striking success, according to Weimer and teacher Katie Talton.

Of the 25 students who started, 17 remained to the end to be tested. Of those, 89% went up a skill level, while the college considers 65% or better to be satisfactory.

Weimer said that it is the only one of the 10 similar CCBC classes around the city that was the brainchild of the people who became the students.

Talton attributes a big part of that success to the sense of community formed in the classroom, with students bringing food to share and supporting one another through six hours of class a week and homework.

Even the fact that students were at different skill levels worked to the class’s advantage because the students helped each other over rough spots.

“The students really did take ownership of it,” said Talton.

One reward is another class, starting next week. Over the weekend, Irais Vásquez went door-to-door in her own and a neighboring apartment building leaving fliers to lure the additional students needed.

Less tangible are the rewards students feel that, as parents, they can help make school work better for their children and improve their own futures.

Amy Joust, who is one of the two English-as-a-Second-Language teachers at Holabird, has noticed a difference. “Parents are more confident,” she said. “They are approaching teachers more.”

Helen Cruz has her own measurement of success. She carefully unfolded a well-creased piece of notebook paper and read aloud a long note, in English, from an employer she had not seen for several months until recently.

Now that Cruz can understand the words, she and her employer are on the same page.

In the not-too-distant future, when Holabird has an Hispanic parent organization, Cruz added,  “I want to be the director.”

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