English as a second language program being trimmed

Carmen Larios could barely speak English when she came to this country from Mexico. She married and began to live in Modesto but had trouble communicating with her husband. He spoke only English.

She realized it was going to be difficult to speak to many of those around here if she didn't learn English.

"If you're in this country, you have to speak English to get a better job, to make a doctor's appointment and basically to do anything else," Larios said.

Her English is a lot better these days after attending English as a second language classes at the

El Concilio offices in downtown Modesto. But she says she still has more to learn.

The classes scheduled in the morning three days a week allowed Larios, 54, to attend without missing work in the afternoon at a Modesto retirement home.

But she won't be going to those classes in the near future because Modesto City Schools is cutting its funding of the program as it struggles with a $24 million budget shortfall.

The ESL classes will continue at El Concilio, but they will be scheduled in the evenings.

"It's hard for me, because I work in the afternoons," Larios said. "If I change jobs maybe I'll come back."

The classes will be taught by a credentialed volunteer who can work only in the evenings, said Yamilet Vallado-lid, site director for El Concilio, Council for the Spanish Speaking.

Although there's no money to pay the teacher's wages, El Concilio still has the space and textbooks to keep the classes going. But it needs credentialed ESL teachers to volunteer to reinstate the morning classes.

"It's the community's turn this time to step up," Vallado-lid said.

She said the classes are important in helping improve work force literacy and economic development. "Taking the classes away isn't going to solve the problem," Valla-dolid said.

The classes were funded by a Modesto City Schools program, Community Based English Tutoring.

The ultimate goal of the ESL classes was to help parents better communicate with educators about improving their children's academic performance.

The school district started with several sites in the Modesto area where ESL classes were taught. The worsening economy forced school administrators to scale back the program to three sites about two years ago, said Emily Lawrence, a district spokeswoman.

The district funding paid for teacher wages and class materials such as textbooks. Another round of budget cuts this year forced the school district to eliminate the program.

"We're funneling all our resources into the programs for the kids," Lawrence said. "Hopefully there will be some local business partners who will step up and help where education can't."

Information about how much is needed to fund the classes was not available.

The classes have been invaluable for parent Celia Martinez, 36, of Modesto, who used to have a lot of trouble during parent-teacher conferences.

"I could understand (the teachers) somewhat, but I couldn't really express myself to them," said Martinez, who has a son and a daughter in elementary school.

She's been in the country for six years after moving from Mexico. She's spent the past four years improving her English skills at El Concilio's ESL classes. Because she needs to be at home in the evening with her children, she won't be able to attend the night classes.

"I've improved a lot, but I still need more education," Martinez said.

Dorothy Bengtson has been teaching the morning ESL classes since she retired seven years ago from the Sylvan Union School District.

Bengtson said she won't continue teaching the classes because the tutoring program is being eliminated, and she already had planned a summer trip with her husband.

Once she returns, she said she will consider teaching the classes as a volunteer at El Concilio or somewhere else. She said there still is a great need to help newcomers to this country.

"They need to learn English so they can survive in this country and succeed," Bengtson said.

About 35 to 50 students attend each class. Most are Spanish-speaking Latinos, but there have been some students originally from China, Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Some students show up with no education at all; others had received a lot of education in their home countries, including a man who was a pediatrician in Guatemala.

Bengtson said some of the students want to learn English to pass U.S. citizenship exams. Others just wanted to learn the language and avoid having to have their children translate.

"They show up on their days off from work, and they help one another," Bengtson said.

"These are wonderful, hardworking, kind and generous people who just want to better themselves."

For more information about the El Concilio ESL classes or to volunteer, call 523-2860.

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at or 578-2394.