Community Plaza becoming a family affair for Latino community in Arundel

When Annapolis High School senior Aidee Serrano was struggling to learn both English and Spanish while in elementary and middle school, her mother Elsa always lent a hand with homework — even though she spoke little English herself.

Now, Aidee is a National Honor Society student at Annapolis High and helping her mother — and others — learn English in a free adult education program called Community Plaza, which serves as an outreach drop-in center used primarily by Annapolis' Latino community.

Implemented through the Mexican Embassy in Washington, Community Plaza is offered at Annapolis Evening High School and provides lessons in basic reading and writing skills for an elementary through high school equivalent education. The program has become a magnet for Latino residents, drawing entire families whose members seek to improve reading and language skills and helping get school-age children excited about instruction as they see the interest expressed by their adult relatives.

Aidee Serrano, 17, an English tutor for Community Plaza, said she is returning the support her mother gave her when she struggled just a few years ago. She added that often teaching one's parents requires a bit of tough love.

"She's been learning English using Rosetta Stone, but sometimes she'll get stuck on a word and ask me, 'What did they say?' " she said. "And I'll say, 'No, no answers. I'll only give you hints.' "

Marcianna Lane Rodriguez, an English as a Second Language teacher who runs Community Plaza, said the program is accredited by the Mexican education department and focuses on people ages 15 and older. Anne Arundel County's public schools entered into an agreement with the consulate in 2011 to offer Community Plaza at Annapolis High, in part because of the school community's sizable Latino population.

Rodriguez, who holds dual citizenship and residency in the U.S. and Mexico, said the Community Plaza concept was developed in Mexico City about 40 years ago as part of an effort to promote "lifelong learning" among citizens.

In the 1990s, Rodriguez said, the consulate sought to extend the program to Latino immigrants in the United States. She said the program has been implemented at 120 sites nationwide. Individuals use the program to immerse themselves in courses that cover topics such as history, mathematics, science, literature and contemporary issues in Latin America, county school officials said.

"Many of my [ESOL] day students have sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles who, for some reason in their native countries, did not have the opportunity to complete their education," Rodriguez said. "Many times they're unable to access public education [or] cannot afford private education, so they really languish in terms of educational opportunities.

"If what you really want to do is prove to people how important education is, then you can't just stop with students in the classroom," Rodriguez said. "You have to reach out to the community and to their families, so they are enveloped in an environment that says education is important — and it's so important that we're going back to school as well."

Community Plaza is held twice a week during evenings at Annapolis High. During its first year, in 2011-2012, the program drew an average of 10 people for 50 sessions. Last year, attendance doubled, Rodriguez said.

Nelson C. Horine, principal for Anne Arundel County evening public high schools, said Annapolis High School officials saw a need for such a program as they discovered many Latino students were having difficulty transitioning into county high schools.

"One of the concerns we have with Latino students who are coming to the U.S. and enrolling in Annapolis High School was their age, because students have to graduate by the time they're 21," Horine said. "We had a lot of kids who were starting high school but, because of their lack of education coming into evening high school from their home country, they would age out before they could graduated.

"We also saw this as an opportunity to be able to provide an avenue for them to get a high school diploma — other than graduating from high school," Horine said

Aidee Serrano, who also teaches math and organizational skills to individuals at Community Plaza, said her mother has become efficient enough in English to help her twin fifth-grade brothers with their homework, something Aidee used to do.

But she said jokingly that one aspect of the Community Plaza family plan has backfired: Once her mother started becoming proficient in speaking and understanding English, she and her siblings could no longer "hide" their conversations from their mom.

"Now she can understand English, we can never escape by talking English," she said.

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