Language Barriers

ESL programs, already strapped for funds, brace for an increase in demand

Adolfo Carranza was confident he could read the first three of six word lists during an evaluation of his English proficiency.

"These are pretty easy--I mean, not easy, but I feel comfortable with this," Carranza said, gesturing at the sheet of paper placed in front of him by Sharon Hunter, a volunteer with Literacy Volunteers of Tucson. He breezed through one list in heavily accented English, with only a couple of words giving him pause.

Carranza, 38, immigrated to the United States from Mexico 15 years ago without knowing any English. He said daily life back then was a frightening struggle; he found few people, including Mexican Americans, who were willing to communicate with him in Spanish.

"I was afraid to go out in the street," he said. "It was scary. I cried. It was horrible."

Eventually, with the help of Pima Community College Adult Education courses at El Rio Neighborhood Center, he improved his English speaking and reading abilities.

Writing, however, still gives him trouble. A corrections officer with honest, somewhat sad eyes, Carranza said a supervisor handed back incident reports he had penned, saying they needed to be redone. He's seeking 1-on-1 tutoring to improve these skills.

"Sometimes, my supervisor made me feel bad when he gave me my report back," he said. "Basically, he was telling me my report sucked. I have to do something about it, because that makes you feel bad when someone says that's not right."

Carranza and his wife, who was being evaluated in a separate room, are typical of those who want to improve their English skills, officials working with two local ESL programs said. These programs are undermanned and underfunded, and at least one person--the dean of Pima Community College's Adult Education--is worried any immigration reform that makes its way through Congress will only make matters worse.

Sandy Cochran, volunteer manager for Literacy Volunteers of Tucson, said the majority of people who attend the organization's group classes or seek 1-on-1 tutoring are trying to improve their employment prospects. There are a lot of young mothers, and many are poor.

"These people are often holding down two jobs, raising a family; they don't have a car, and yet they get to English class," she said. "They want to understand life in this country. Our tutors spend a lot of time explaining our traditions and our customs and our idioms, if you will--our strange way of speaking."

Greg Hart, dean of PCC Adult Education, echoed Cochran's sentiments.

"Most people come to the program to better their economic circumstances, but typically, it's a mixture of motivations," Hart said. "Just as often, as a matter of fact, a lot of people come in so they can be more active in their children's education."

And that's a good thing, he continued, because there's a correlation between a mother's education level and the success of her child. "Adult education is, by and large, also the education of children," Hart said. "Policymakers ... I don't think they understand that yet--not in any widespread way."

Both Cochran and Hart said demand for their programs is very high. Literacy Volunteers of Tucson gives free classes at local schools during the academic year. There were 11 such courses last year, with 30 to 40 people in each course. Another 50 receive 1-on-1 tutoring.

About 300 volunteers provide these services. "Never, never do we have enough volunteers," Cochran said.

Between 5,500 and 6,000 people will receive ESL instruction through the PCC program this year, with a waiting list of about 1,500. "Yes, demand outstrips supply," Hart said. "It's very intense; it's very in demand, and it has been for a number of years."

That waiting list could be erased if PCC allowed 50 or 60 people in a class, Hart added: "But we can't do that, because it totally degrades the learning opportunities for people. We just can't handle that many people."

Hart, who has worked in adult education since 1977, said an immigration-policy overhaul in 1986 caused demand for ESL classes to soar, forcing PCC to allow up to 120 people in each class. "It was outrageous," he said.

Nowadays, the college tries to keep classes capped at 25, although they often exceed that. To keep demand manageable, PCC also doesn't publicize its ESL program.

"We don't market, and we haven't for years," he said. "We can't handle what comes if we aggressively market the program."

Money for PCC Adult Education comes from state and federal government sources. Funding levels have been stagnant for some time, Hart said.

"We have been holding steady, pretty much level over the last four or five years, despite demand," he said. "So we're actually losing ground to inflation and demand."

The current state allocation for adult-education programs is $4.5 million per year, Hart said. With as many as 40,000 using these programs in Arizona, that translates into $112.50 per person.

In comparison, Arizona is 48th in the nation with primary and secondary education expenditures of $6,036 per student, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's Public Education Finances Report for 2004. That report was released in March.

There have been numerous attempts to slash adult-education funding in recent years. President George W. Bush proposed cutting the federal adult-education budget by nearly two-thirds last year, but his recommendation was scrapped in November 2005. An effort by the Arizona Legislature to strip funding was "barely" turned back in 2003, Hart added.

With all these financial pressures, Hart said, PCC is currently examining charging fees for its services. But that comes with its own problems.

"One of the things that characterizes large numbers of people who come into adult ed is that they're struggling economically," he said. "A fee structure will have to be done to make sure that the people who need it still have access to it. Often, the people who need (classes) most are the ones suffering the most economically."

And an even greater challenge could lie just over the horizon. Hart is convinced any immigration-reform bill that finally makes its way through Congress will have a component making it mandatory to learn English.

"At some point within the next year to three years out, there's going to be immigration legislation," he said. "There's no question in my mind that there will be an English-language-learning requirement that will put a huge load on Pima County Adult Education. I think the demand will be absolutely overwhelming."

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