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Schools' parents are the students in English language classes

At Scotchtown Hills Elementary, students shuffled into classrooms on a Monday evening with their workbooks in hand for this week's English lesson. These were not grade-school students, but Spanish-speaking parents enrolled in a literacy course to improve their English language skills.

What started as a small ESL program four years ago at Grace Community Church in Fulton has become a volunteer-driven weekly classroom session at three schools in Prince George's and Howard counties. The program is also held at Laurel Woods and Ducketts Lane Elementary schools.

The spring semester began in January and ends June 12.

Program coordinator Debbie McGuire, an adjunct ESL instructor at Howard Community College, said the course offers four levels of difficulty, ranging from pre-beginners to advanced English speakers, readers and writers. More than 25 parents attended the Feb. 13 class in Laurel.

"Most of the parents that we have – who are from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico or Honduras – have maybe a sixth- or seventh-grade education from their country," McGuire said. "They have very limited literacy skills even in their own language, so they feel helpless when their kids start surpassing them in the English language."

The adults do not have to have children in the school to participate, McGuire said, but can join the class to get help with their English. However, many parents at the Scotchtown Hills class have students who attend the elementary school, McGuire said, and want to contribute to their children's education, checking their homework or reading books together. On Feb. 13, about a dozen volunteers joined their adult students for two hours to review the previous week's homework and dive into hands-on lessons.

While some volunteers attend Grace Community Church, others heard of the program word-of-mouth. McGuire said volunteers are not required to be fluent in Spanish since students should immerse themselves in the English language.

Each student pays a one-time $30 fee for two instructional books, which includes a class book and workbook.

Standing in front of a chalkboard in the school's media center, two-year volunteer Deb Nichols held a brown paper bag containing several kinds of plastic fruit. Nichols passed the bag around the table to her beginner students, who had to pick and identify their selection using the phrase, "I like."

Carmen Salmeron, a mother of two, picked a cluster of grapes and said to the class, "I like grapes."

"When we were studying prepositions, like 'under,' 'on' and 'next to,' we got the students to stand next to each other and go under the tables," said Nichols, a Glenelg resident. "We like to help them learn while they're actually doing something so it sticks in their minds."

Nearby, Salvador Chairez, an instructor for level 2, read over class book instructions with a couple of students for an advanced lesson. Chairez said students at the advanced level are able to hold a conversation in English and are now refining their reading and writing abilities.

The son of a Latino immigrant, Chairez said he relates to the students' struggles, reflecting on his childhood experiences with a Spanish-speaking father and English-speaking mother. His father emigrated from Mexico, traveled through Texas and settled in Ohio, where he met Chairez's mother.

Chairez's father later became a naturalized citizen.

"I learned both [languages] at the same time," Chairez said. "I would go with my dad when he had to write a check for something. He would sign it, but I had to fill everything else out for him. I see my dad's struggles and completely understand where [the students] are coming from. I want to help them not have to go through those kinds of experiences."

During a break in the evening, student Oralia Benitez said her level 1B class has helped her communicate more effectively with her two children, ages 4 and 12. With another child on the way, Benitez said she wanted to understand what her boys were learning in school.

"It's hard to help them with their homework. I can't understand everything, but I'm trying to help," the Laurel resident said. "I ask my son, 'Can you help me?' because I can't understand some words. [The class] is nice because every time you come, you learn. The teachers are so good."

José Andrades, another level 1B student, said the class has helped close the language gap between him and his coworkers.

"I work in the warehouse as a supervisor [and] we have 45 people, half who are Spanish, and my boss is American," said Andrades, a Laurel resident. "I think it's good for learning. We get help with pronunciation."

Tim Siemens, a pastor at Grace Community Church, said he wanted to help others acclimate to a new culture. By expanding the program to other areas, Siemens said volunteers were able to reach the more diverse communities.

"The Bible is clear about treating the foreigner like they're one of us because we all were foreigners at some point," Siemens said

Volunteer Jenny Laure, the parent engagement assistant at Scotchtown Hills Elementary, agreed, adding that bringing the ESL program to Laurel shows just how diverse the community is.

"What really moves me is the willingness of the parents to come and learn," Laure said. "They just needed somebody to motivate them. It's definitely a need and in the long run, they're going to be more involved in their kids' education."

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