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placeholder May 18, 2015   •   VOL. 53, NO. 10   •   Oakland, CA

"Each time we raise the bar, our students meet it," said Phyliss Martinez, program director.

Classes for English learners continue at St. Elizabeth

Sister Ann Ronin, OP, established Las Casas, English as a Second Language program, in 2002, as such classes were becoming less available in adult schools. Immigrants learned about it by word of mouth, journeying to St. Elizabeth Elementary School in Oakland's Fruitvale District for evening classes to help them learn the language to help them work, communicate with their children's teachers, and make their way in their new country.

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Las Casas
Among the volunteer teachers was Phyliss Martinez. "I'm really happy I got a chance to meet her and know her vision and energy," said Martinez, who became a volunteer just a few months before Sister Ann's death in 2011.

The Dominican Sisters continued the program, with Sister Barbara Larner, OP, who was already engaged in development work at St. Elizabeth High School, taking the helm. Assisted by Martinez, who became co-director last fall, the Las Casas program, now operating three nights a week, moved across the street, from the elementary to the high school.

After Sister Barbara's death in November 2014, the Dominican sisters once again decided to continue their support, and Martinez became the program's director.

"The good news," Martinez, said, is that the Sisters "are continuing to support it and see it as a valuable community project."

Faithful to the mission established more than a decade ago, the program enrolls about 180 students; more than 100 are in classrooms each night.

The school year begins in August, with standardized testing, and continues through May. The written standardized test, which is new to most students, helps the program "be more consistent in placing students," Martinez said. It also helps students develop a life skill. There are many standardized tests they will face in the United States, from the DMV to entrance tests to community college, for those who continue their education.

Students pay a $20 registration fee in the fall, $30 for the longer spring semester. It's not just to defray costs, Martinez said, but to ensure the student has an investment in his or her own work.

Until two years ago, it was completely free. Some volunteers expressed concern that students wouldn't be able to pay, but it has made no difference in attendance, Martinez said,.

"Most students attend more than one night a week," Martinez said. Classes are Monday, Tuesday and Thursdays. A student must attend 60 percent of the classes to confirm registration.

Such a rule tests the student's commitment. "In or out?" she said. "They can't learn by not showing up."

Attendance increased.

"Each time we raise the bar," she said, "our students meet it."

In January, for example, Martinez and assistant director Marisa McDonald noted 32 students had perfect attendance. They presented certificates to the students.

In February, 53 students had perfect attendance.

The interest and need is that great. "There's more demand than we can meet," she said. English-learners, she said, have "nowhere else to go."

"Students are very committed," Martinez said. "They understand how this impacts their lives. They try to meet that demand."

It's not always easy: Transportation, child care, erratic work schedules, for example, can get in the way of attendance.

There are seven classrooms serving students at five levels. "I've had a couple of students I've had all four years I've been there," Martinez said. Some have moved up a level, some have stayed.

It is possible to move up two levels over the course of two to four years, Martinez said. The highest level students, it was decided, were ready to take courses at community college. Las Casas has invited representatives from the local community colleges to class to help ease that transition.

New students regularly join the program; Las Casas does maintain a wait list. Martinez would like to serve them all "if we had enough staff."

"It's so needed," Martinez said of the program. "It's just amazing to me we have the only adult ESL in Oakland when there's such an immigrant population here. I wish we could double in size."

Martinez has started seeking volunteers through the Volunteer Center of the East Bay. "When you get the word out, people want to step up," she said.

There are close to 20 regular teachers, and second teachers have been added to the classes. To be a core teacher, one teaches two nights a week.

Martinez welcomes new volunteers. People who would like to begin volunteering in the fall should call her soon, she said.

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