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In Santa Ana, Literacy May Begin in Spanish
October 20, 2003
LA Times
Jennifer Mena

As the sun sets, students at desks perch over photocopies of a story about a curious elephant, focused more on a drawing of a playful animal than the words below it.

A volunteer teacher, Aurelio Sanchez, slowly reads to them in Spanish the 300-word children's tale and asks them questions to gauge their comprehension. Then he summons the immigrant students to write sentences about the tale.

It's no easy task for the two homemakers, three factory workers and a gardener. After a day of work, they are trying to catch up to their U.S.-born elementary school children.

These native Spanish speakers, after decades of cloaking the embarrassment of illiteracy, are now learning to read and write in Spanish.

They've been given the chance through a free class offered by the Santa Ana Unified School District at Spurgeon Middle School and supported by the Mexican consulate and the goodwill of a local resident volunteer.

The class is intended to prepare them for later classes in English. Upon completion, they receive a primary-school education certificate from the Mexican government, and confidence to seek better jobs.

The students repeat their mantra that all they want is to get ahead, salir adelante.

Trying to write the sentences Sanchez has asked for, student Margarita Mujardin struggles with each word, often erasing her pencil marks. She comes up with four lines of text, but some are not full sentences. She doesn't realize that sentences need verbs.

"I am trying because I feel like it's never too late," she said. "For years, I've done little more than get by."

The school district doesn't fund the instruction but for the last three years has provided a classroom and says it will do the same at 11 other campuses if more volunteer teachers come forward. The curriculum is provided by the Mexican consulate, through the Mexican Institute of Adult Education.

"This is a program that draws parents into the circle of the [school] district. It makes them see the importance of education," said Catalina Cruz, the district's bilingual curriculum specialist.

Illiteracy among Spanish-speaking adults affects their relationship with their children on two levels, officials note.

"Our parents miss a connection with their children," said Cruz, because they are unable to help with homework.

And because children have better command of written language than their parents, they are often thrust into the role of handling family finances or resolving problems with utilities and other daily issues, she said.

But the district has struggled to enlist more adults in its Spanish literacy program.

"There is a lot of shame and the students are also very tired from their work," said Sanchez, the teacher.

And disseminating information about the program has to be done by word of mouth, Sanchez said, because fliers are ineffective.

Illiteracy plagues more than the immigrant population, said Marcia Tongate, program administrator for literacy services for the Orange County Public Library System.

Nationally, 27% of adults are functionally illiterate, meaning their inability to read or write inhibits their daily lives. The figure is probably higher in Southern California because of the region's large immigrant population, said Tongate, who administers literacy classes in English only.

Tongate said that 59% of the library's adult students are English learners who graduated from high school in California but still cannot read or write English properly.

She said she was unaware of the school district's class, and disapproved of its method.

"Learning in Spanish does not help a student learn English," she said. "It just slows learning. To spell in Spanish does not teach English."

But Sanchez said his class invites unschooled adults into a world of learning that they might avoid if instruction were in English. The program leads students to obtain a certificate from the Mexican National Institute for Adult Education, indicating they have finished elementary school.

Sanchez hopes his students will continue learning through night classes offered by Santa Ana College Continuing Education. The college and its sister campus, Santiago Canyon College, offer English as a second language to about 21,000 continuing education students each semester at various locations, including Spurgeon Middle School.

"We are opening the door and we are doing it in a language they can speak but cannot read or write," Sanchez said. "We hope they will continue on, for better jobs, for more opportunity."

Sanchez encourages his students to spread the word about overcoming illiteracy. Three of his six current students knew one another before taking the class.

Marino Nava, a factory worker, said he recruited his brother, Floriberto, and a neighbor. "I told them we were living like blind people because we could not see so many things," Nava said. "But at first they would not listen."

The brother agreed only after his boss at a door factory realized he couldn't read directions and suggested the class. Homemaker Petra Hernandez, 47, said she also is tired of not being able to read or write. She spent her childhood cooking for her father's farm workers in her native El Salvador, then raised her children in Santa Ana while working several jobs.

"I would never say what I did not know," she said. "I would fake it and pray. It left me with a great resentment for my parents because my brothers and sisters did go to school."

At a previous factory job, she struggled to organize parts because she had trouble reading their identification numbers.

Now on the path of education, Hernandez said she wants to become a dental assistant.

"This is a first step. I'm so glad I took it. I know it's embarrassing to many people to start," Hernandez said. "But we have to. It's the only way to get ahead."