Adults go back to school to learn to speak English
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 13, 2004
Louie Villalobos

When it was her turn, Maria Serna stood up and slowly read her homework assignment.

"He is eating fruit."

"She's driving a car."

"We are at school."

With those simple sentences, she showed an improvement from the day before, when she had problems introducing herself and her husband, Vicente, to her classmates.

They are two of about 15 adults taking an English class at Ira Murphy Elementary School in Peoria.

Almost all the adults are parents of children attending the Peoria Unified School District school as Title 1 students, a federal program that qualifies the children for free or reduced-price lunches.

The class, offered through a partnership with Glendale Community College, kicked off with introductions.

Vicente told the group that he and his wife were from Mexico City, that he was a welder, and that Maria likes to sew. Only he used the Spanish word "coser," and laughed when he was told to use English.

"Lo voy apuntar," he said with a giggle, telling the teacher he would write down his new word.

It's those little things that Vicente said he is hoping to learn during the four-week class, which is entering its third week. He also wants to learn enough English to communicate better with co-workers and his children, who speak more English than Spanish.

"I want to take away that barrier and say what I want," he said in Spanish.

That's the same goal teacher Paula Mitchell has for her students, one she made clear the first day of class. Mitchell, who works for the Glendale college as a program adviser, said the parents should be able to learn a significant amount of English in four weeks if they practice speaking the language.

"It helps them to identify what words they are trying to say," she said. "It helps them to start thinking in English."

Anne Buhrmann, the Title 1 facilitator at Ira Murphy, said that if the parents learn English, they will be more involved with their children's education.

"The parents are willing to come to school to learn English," she said. "It sends that message back to their kids."

The school has about 725 Title 1 students, most of whom need extra help in reading and math. Buhrmann said because the number of Title 1 students has steadily increased over the years, so has the number of Spanish-speaking parents and the difficulty school officials have in communicating with them.

But before these parents can influence their children's education, they will have to learn the language in which it's taught.

On the second day of class, the Sernas were able to put a few sentences together and read them out loud in English with only minor corrections needed.One week later, the two were using index cards to form sentences with their classmates. Maria's card completed the sentence "Where are you from?"

By the end of the four weeks, both parents said they want to be able to rely less on their friends or children for translation.

Maria would like to go to visit a doctor, for example, and be able to communicate without having her 8-year-old boy translate her symptoms.

"It's a lot of responsibility," she said. "He tries, but he can't translate all the words."

Contact reporter at or (602) 444-6940.