Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

English Classes Give Parents New Voice in Kids' Schooling

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

English Classes Give Parents New Voice in Kids' Schooling

Article excerpt

HACKENSACK -- When Albina Cruz came to the United States from Mexico in 2000, she knew only Spanish. Now, she helps her children with their homework and communicates with their teachers in English, while taking language classes offered by the city school district tailored to parents like her.

School districts like Hackensack, with large numbers of immigrant families, are offering English-language classes as a way to reach out to parents, get them more involved in their children's education, help them communicate with school staff, and improve families' work and economic prospects. Other city school districts such as Paterson and Passaic, with long-established Hispanic populations, have offered English classes to parents for decades; Hackensack introduced its program in November 2012 to respond and connect to a growing minority population.

Hispanics now make up 60 percent of students in the school district, officials said. In 2012, the need for English classes became clear in a district survey where parents identified language as their top barrier to school involvement. Diana Bermudez, the district's parent outreach facilitator, launched the classes with support from Uniting Communities, a non-profit group in Colorado that helps develop and nurture programs in English as a Second Language.

Many parents feel uncomfortable in the schools, "or just fear not knowing what to say or how they're going to say it," said Bermudez, whose salary is paid through a federal grant aimed at helping disadvantaged students in local school districts. The classes, she said, put them at ease with the language and the school environment.

The 10-week program quickly filled to capacity after its launch. Last year, the classes drew about 150 students. This year, 200 parents are enrolled and 150 are on a waiting list, while the district continues to seek and recruit volunteer teachers.

Hackensack uses volunteer teachers who do not require certification, but must go through four hours of training and one class observation. Volunteers help keep program costs down, said Bermudez. The district pays about $4,500 for materials and for training, and there is a suggested $8 donation from parents, she said. Free child care is offered during classes.

On a recent evening, students sat in nine classrooms where four levels of English were being taught. In a beginner class, students took turns asking each other questions about where they live, their favorite food and favorite color. In an advanced class down the hall, students were studying the use of pronouns.

"It's very important to learn English," said Cruz, 31. "That way I can do a better job with my kids in the home. I can better understand the teachers."

Cruz said knowing English also was important for cultural and social reasons, including making new friends. …

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