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 years ago.
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 words.”
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 assignments.
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,” said Swan.
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 child.
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.