Immigrants flocking to English programs
Beacon Times
July 1, 2006

By Justina Wang

"I brought you a book this week," tutor Kathy Meyers tells her student. "It's called Bridge to Terabithia." "For me?" responds Claudia Cora in her Polish accent, as a shy smile spreads across her lips. She slowly mouths the word "Terabithia" and puts the book aside to read later.

The two women then turn to an English workbook, studious looks on both their faces as they practice single pronouns and sentence structure for the next hour and a half. Their weekly meetings at the Batavia Public Library have become a staple of Cora's life in America.

A Polish immigrant who arrived in the United States in March to take a job cleaning houses, Cora didn't speak a word of English and immediately began taking courses at a school near where she was staying in Villa Park. When she moved to Batavia in the fall, one of her clients pointed her to Literacy Volunteers-Fox Valley, a program that partners volunteer tutors with anyone interested in learning English.

In the past month, Cora has started bringing her boyfriend, Joe Joachim, another Polish immigrant who works with Meyers' husband Dick in another library room. Her daughters, 17-year-old Ada and 15-year-old Magda, who are visiting from Poland this summer, have been frequenting her weekly sessions to brush up on the English skills they've learned in their schools.

In a year marked by heated discussions on immigration reform and making English a "national language," Cora seems unconcerned with the government debates as she explains why she uses the small amount of free time she has between cleaning houses and babysitting to learn the language.

"Because I need it," she says matter-of-factly. "I'm in America."

Overflowing interest

Directors of free English language programs throughout the area say the hundreds of students such as Cora, with whom they work each year, prove wrong those who think immigrants have come into the country with no desire to assimilate. Many programs have more students than volunteers can handle and waiting lists with dozens of names.

"We would serve many more people if we could support them," Peg Coker, director of Literacy Volunteers-Fox Valley, said. "I think we have a mature population, a wise population of people who, despite working three jobs at a time, want to take an hour a week to work with volunteers. They all have families to support and they understand that to get ahead they have to be able to communicate."

Since the program began in 1986, enrollment in Literacy Volunteers-Fox Valley has skyrocketed from six students to about 260 from 24 countries, Coker said. They have a constant waiting list with an overflow of between 15 and 20 students.

It's a trend that's being repeated in many other programs in the Fox Valley. Some, such as Literacy Volunteers and the Dominican Literacy Center in Aurora, don't advertise their programs anymore because word-of-mouth has provided more than enough interest. The Dominican Literacy Center, which was founded in the 1990s with just a handful of students, serves about 100 students each year and has an additional 160 on waiting lists. Aurora's largest English program, at Waubonsee Community College, has grown from 30 to 1,240 students in 21 years. It has about 25 students still waiting for volunteers.

'To better their lives'

Even newer programs, such as the one run by Iglesia Evangelica Luterna San Pablo (formerly St. Paul's Lutheran Church), have started experiencing the same demand. Between its first and third years, enrollment in the program has jumped from 30 to 150 students.

"The main reason (students come) is to better their new lives here, to function better in their work, communicate better in our society and help their own children in school," Iglesia San Pablo Pastor Alex Merlo said. "In my experience, many immigrants do want to learn the language, they want to understand and they want to communicate with their neighbors and do better in their work.

"They understand that English is the language here and they want to be assimilated in the culture." At Cora's Wednesday sessions at the Batavia Public Library, she hunches over her workbook, going over the words carefully and skillfully.

"Is it raining? Yes, take an umbrella," she reads, before turning to her tutor with a smile. "That's why I do it," Meyers says. "They're so appreciative of this."