For Julio Melendez, 34, learning English two evenings a week for two hours at Manzanita Elementary School in Newbury Park means improving his chances of getting a higher-paying job and also being able to tutor his niece.
In addition to learning English and parenting skills, Melendez, who was an electrical engineer in El Salvador, also hears about community resources at Manzanita through the Community-Based English Tutoring program offered by the Conejo Valley Unified School District.
“The parents in our program value education and have high hopes for their children,” said Claudia Spelman, coordinator of pupil services for the Conejo district. “They’re very motivated.” More than 1,500 parents have enrolled in the free program since it began in 1999. Spelman obtained funding for the tutoring program from the state of California and also wrote the program’s workbook.
“On some nights there are four to 35 adults in a classroom, and all students are at different levels,” said Bette Empol, lead teacher and coordinator of the program in the Conejo Valley Unified School District.
The classes also are taught at Conejo School, Conejo Creek Condominium Complex, Shadow Hills/Many Mansions Apartments and Conejo Valley Adult School.
“The main goal is to teach parents English so they can help any child needing tutoring,” Empol said. “The teachers are credentialled and use both Spanish and English with the adults.”
The program stresses parental involvement in the community and with their children. When parents enroll in the program, they must sign a pledge that they will tutor a child who has limited English proficiency. They are asked to keep a log.
“Just reading to a child is tutoring, too,” Empol said.
While parents are attending the two-hour sessions, free child care is provided at the schools.
“Last summer at Manzanita and at Conejo, the 4- and 5-year-olds received pre-kindergarten readiness exercises at the same time their parents were in class –learning the alphabet in English, holding scissors, colors, sizes and shapes,” Empol said. “As a result, the kindergarten teachers were thrilled this year.”
At Conejo School, more than 15 parents regularly attend morning and evening classes three times a week, and many of the parents are helping in the classroom.
“Our program is wonderful here, and it has been a big help to our students,” said Larry Birdsell, principal of Conejo School in Thousand Oaks.
Kathy Dichirico teaches English as a second language to high-school students at Newbury Park High and the adult program at Manzanita.
“I see high-school students whose Spanish-speaking parents can’t help them with their homework, and they struggle because there’s no support,” Dichirico said.
“One of my high-school students had some behavior problems and also trouble with English,” Dichirico said. “I told him to tell his parents about the adult class:They enrolled and it helped because he knew that I knew his parents.”
Trying to master the English language after working a full day is a sacrifice for these adults, but the camaraderie and light-hearted environment in the classroom eases the pressure.
Recently, Dichirico showed her students some cleaning supplies.
“What are these?” Dichirico asked.
One woman responded, saying they were chicken supplies.
“We’re not cleaning the chicken, we’re cleaning the kitchen,” Dichirico said.
The woman and the rest of her friends giggled at the mistake.
Explaining the difference in the pronunciation of words with a letter “j” in them also brought a few laughs.
“You would say ‘Ahax,’ Dichirico said, holding up a can of the cleanser. “We say ‘Ajax.’ ”
While most of the students speak Spanish as their native language, anyone is welcome in the class.
Zofia Bronakowska, 58, came from Poland in September and lives with her son and his family in Newbury Park.
“Every day I read geography with my granddaughter and I like to do that,” Bronakowska said.
“One of my high-school students had some behavior problems and also trouble with English. I told him to tell his parents about the adult class:They enrolled and it helped because he knew that I knew his parents.”
— Kathy Dichirico, who teaches English as a second language to high school students at Newbury Park High and the adult program at Manzanita