Maria Adela Castellanos knows how to read and write English, but
she’s just now gaining confidence to speak it.
A former executive secretary in Mexico City, she was studying to
become an elementary school teacher when she came to the U.S. eight
Castellanos serves as a classroom volunteer helping children with
mathematics at Valley Vista School, where her youngest daughter,
Dulce, 6, is a student. Another daughter, Melissa, 13, attends
Petaluma Junior High School.
Two days a week, Castellanos is a student at Valley Vista as a
part of an English as a Second Language class administered by the
Petaluma School District’s adult education program.
“I understand and write English, but I don’t talk it perfectly. I
read a lot of English and listen to the radio and TV,” said
Castellanos, speaking in Spanish. “I don’t know how to pronounce the
She’s one of about 20 parents who are drilling pronunciation,
practicing conversation and learning tips to help their children with
their school work.
“It’s empowering the people. They’re excited. They do homework.
They feel like it’s helping them, and the teachers like the parents’
enthusiasm,” said Carmen Cremidis, who’s been a bilingual assistant
at Valley Vista for 10 years.
The class was launched in January in response to parents’ desire
to study English while their kids were in school. The district
offers nighttime ESL classes, but the Valley Vista program is
structured specifically for Valley Vista parents with elementary-aged
children. The class isn’t limited, however, to those with children
at Valley Vista.
To accommodate parents with preschool-age children, the district
supplies a child care worker to supervise youngsters in an adja cent
room during the English classes.
“The majority are women with young children. They don’t get out
of the house much. They’re able to walk to the school,” said Paty
Hermosillo-Perkins, a Valley Vista kindergarten teacher and former
bilingual instructional aide at the school.
A similar program two mornings a week at the Corona Ranch
apartments in east Petaluma is sponsored by the school district. The
developer, Eden Housing, provides meeting space, the Waugh School
District PTA pays for the child care costs, and the Petaluma School
district supplies an ESL instructor and materials.
Under guidelines set forth by passage of Prop. 227 in 1997, state
funds are earmarked to train par ents to serve as tutors for children
who speak a primary language other than English. This program
intends to bolster parents’ English ability and encourage them to
assist their students with school work.
“If you’re a low-level English learner as an adult, how do you
help your fifth grader? It’s like putting the cart before the
horse,” said Carol Waxman, the district’s ESL coordinator for the
adult education program.
Hermosillo-Perkins helped initiate the class after meeting the
parents of children enrolling in her class last fall. She teaches 21
children whose primary language is Spanish, and says students will be
more successful academically if their parents understand their school
She approached principal Nancy Smith with the idea of the daytime,
school-based ESL class, and they talked about how it might increase
Latino parents’ involvement in the school community.
“Learning English is a process. It’s not an overnight thing,” she
said. “And they’re feeling more connected to the school. A lot of
what I send home requires parent help.”
Maria Ortiz, 24, who came to the U.S. from Oaxaca nine years ago,
says the class has been useful in teaching her English. Her
daughter, Monica, is a Valley Vista second-grader and her son, Luis,
goes to the preschool program when Maria’s in class. “I can
communicate better with the doctor and talk to my daughter’s teacher
better,” said Ortiz in Spanish.
ESL instructor Angela Swan admits it’s a challenge teaching
English without being able to communicate in Spanish. She knows a
few Spanish words and phrases, but relies on her skills as an
experienced educator to teach English.
Swan is a former kindergarten and primary teacher who has a
master’s degree in language arts.
“I’m a resource they don’t have,” said Swan, who patiently drills
sounds like “g-e, ge-t, get” and has students repeat after her until
they’re saying the word “get” correctly.
“The biggest asset of the program is having it at school. It’s
not just a place to drop their child off. They feel more
comfortable, and as they get more confident, they may work as
classroom volunteers,” she said.
The students practice reading children’s stories in English and
Spanish, and take books home to read with their young children.
“The mother is modeling that reading is a good thing. They’re
learning together in English and Spanish and that’s a good thing,”
Waxman said the class also provides a setting to talk to parents
in Spanish about topics like child development, goal setting,
discipline versus punishment and the parent as an advocate for the
The Valley Vista ESL program continues through May, and Waxman
said the district will offer the program in the fall as long as
there’s sufficient enrollment.