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English, A Step Toward The 'American Dream'

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A mural is painted on the front wall of Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in northwest Washington, D.C.
Jared Angle
A mural is painted on the front wall of Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in northwest Washington, D.C.

At Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in northwest D.C., the mosaic of smiling diverse faces on the building fa├žade outside, mirrors the students inside. The school serves more than 2,000 adult learners from nearly 80 different countries who speak 35 languages. Almost all are immigrants and are there to learn English.

Every year people start lining up at 3 a.m. to apply for admission, says Allison Kokkoros, the chief academic officer. She says they have 1,000 people on their waiting list right now. Waiting lists don't roll over, so those who didn't get in this year will have to line up again next year.

There are nearly 23 million adults in the U.S. who speak what's called "limited English." Of those, Heide Wrigley, a national expert on adult learning with Literacywork, says, only 3 to 5 percent are being served in English as a Second Language or ESL classes.

"Within the whole frame of education, adult education is a bit of a stepchild in terms of research and resources," says Wrigley. "And the stepchild of the stepchild is really second language acquisition."

Wrigley says when she gets asked, "why can't immigrants just learn English?" she has to remind people how difficult it is to learn another language and how long it takes.

"It doesn't just require that you learn the grammar and the pronunciation," says Wrigley. "You need thousands of words. And you have to build what we call 'communication competence' that allows you to know not just what to say, but to whom and when, and what not to say."

Teaching techniques

Carlos Rosario gets less funding than a regular K-12 school, but because it's a school, it gets three times the funding a community nonprofit gets to educate each adult, which is approximately $6,800.

Alice Ann Menjivar teaches adults basic English at Carlos Rosario. She says there are some techniques that work well when teaching a different language such as repeating yourself, using pictures and charts, and having students practice speaking, however halting they are. She also says props, like menus and Metro maps, are helpful.

Adult education is a bit of a stepchild in terms of research and resources. And within that framework, the stepchild of the stepchild is really second language acquisition.

"Since this is health class, I'll bring in boxes and labels and packages so they can look at nutrition information," she says. "They need to be able to take their English and use it on the streets as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that is to bring what's out there inside."

Jorge Delgado with Carlos Rosario says many of these adult students make "incredible sacrifices" to come to class. Forty percent have school-age children themselves, some send money home to support their families, and most work long hours.

"They're exhausted," he says. Some students struggle with attendance because they are working two or sometimes three jobs.

Dedicated to learning

One of the students, Ana Perez, stopped going to school after the sixth grade in El Salvador when war broke out. Now, she's trying to fill in the gaps in her education even though she says it's challenging to juggle everything.

"I have a lot on my plate," says Perez. "I have to study, I have a grandchild, I have a daughter, a husband. Everything adds up. I am responsible for the house, for my studies, for my work."

Despite all of that, Perez is in class every day. "I try to never miss a day. A day of studying is sacred for me. I swear."

Learning English is a big goal for many of these students. But at the same time, most aren't interested in going to college. They want to learn English so they can get a better job. Many of their dreams are one small step higher than what they're doing currently. One student washes dishes in a restaurant and wants to be a server. Another babysits and wants to open a small daycare center. A third works in a beauty parlor and hopes to eventually become a supervisor there.

Using an 'integrated' model

The school offers three career paths where students can easily find jobs: hospitality, IT and healthcare. Students earn industry certifications, and the school staff helps place them in jobs. But first they need to reach an advanced level of English.

The school has been following the conventional or "sequential" model of teaching adults: go through several levels of an English program, pass the GED test and then go on to some kind of career training.

Researcher Heide Wrigley says this takes years. "For most people, this is totally unrealistic. It feels to students that they're falling into a black hole."

I try to never miss a day. A day of studying is sacred for me. I swear.

She's helping Carlos Rosario convert to another model of learning where students start on career training much earlier, and they don't have to wait until their English is fluent. Classes are taught by a technical teacher alongside an ESL teacher who can help with language.

Washington State spearheaded this "integrated" model. Research has shown students learning basic English and technical skills at the same time were three times more likely to earn college credit and nine times more likely to earn a college degree, compared to students who follow the traditional model of learning.

It can compress the time spent in class by at least a year, and give students opportunities for higher earnings. For Ana Perez, who catches two buses to get to class, that's significant. She can't wait to graduate.

"It's a dream!" she says. "Because I started from zero. I didn't even know how to say "red" in English."

Adult learners at Carlos Rosario at least have a shot at a better job and better future for their families. But for every one of the students who graduate from this school, there are five more waiting outside, hoping for a chance to have their own shot at the American Dream.

Gallery: Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School

Special thanks to Kelly Ramundo for her help in producing part four of this series.

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