Literacy Volunteers help immigrants learn
Arizona Daily Star
Feb. 08, 2009



By Ernesto Portillo Jr.

Tucson, Arizona | Published:


In a classroom at Myers- Ganoung Elementary School, 11 immigrant women sit at three tables and, in their heavily accented English, begin happily talking about clothes shopping.

Just as they start, however, Janet Frakes, their teacher, interrupts them.

"Let's make this harder," she says. "Let's not fool around."

Even though healthy doses of laughter fill the portable classroom, there is no fooling around in Frakes' English as a Second Language class. Frakes, a one-time English teacher in Tucson schools, is here to instruct and the women are here to learn.

It's a perfect match.

"They want to learn practical English," said Frakes in her no-nonsense way.

Frakes is a tutor for Literacy Volunteers of Tucson. And for six years, since she returned to Tucson after an 18-year absence, she has taught English to foreign-born Tucsonans.

In her years as a tutor, Frakes has discovered that the students, who come from different countries and have various personal experiences, all come for the same reasons.

They want to learn English to get a better job, earn their citizenship and, most important, to help their children.

"Helping their children is their number one motivation," Frakes said.

She is one of about 260 tutors who teach English and reading to more than 800 adults, both native-born and immigrants. Students and tutors meet in 17 libraries and schools in 37 classes or one-on-one.

I visited Frakes' class and two others to observe and learn. I have volunteered to be a tutor.

Literacy Volunteers is funded privately and eschews public funds in order to reach as many people as possible, said executive director Betty Stauffer.

"Our mission is that all adults who want to learn should be given the opportunity," she said.

The organization gave up public money because the state demanded too many requirements and assessments, including its ban on teaching English and reading to undocumented immigrants, Stauffer said.

"We need all adults to function at as high a level as possible if we are to have a successful community," she said.

At Amphi Middle School on East Prince Road near North Stone Avenue, volunteer tutor Karen Kivel, a literacy teacher for Tucson Unified School District, leads a group of about 15 adults from several Latin American, African and Asian countries. Classes are held twice a week in the evenings. Some students arrive straight from their jobs.

They are beginner learners. Some are shy, not wanting to reveal the little English they know. Others are not. But they all are eager to learn.

It's not uncommon for the adult learners to help each other. At Tuesday's class, a Spanish-speaking student helped an African woman pronounce the words.

The two could barely speak English, but they understood the need to learn and to help each other. In their interactions, students from diverse backgrounds were joined by their common goal.

At Myers-Ganoung, near East 22nd Street and South Rosemont Avenue close to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, several women attended class while their children were in the school's day-care center. If child care wasn't available, Frakes said, the women would not be enrolled in English classes. Frakes said many of the women who take classes and care for their children during the day work at night.

"Learning English empowers them," she said.

While the libraries and schools are generous with their space, a few classrooms are not ideal.

At the Quincie Douglas Branch Library at South Kino Parkway and East 36th Street, more than 30 students filled the meeting room. The two volunteer tutors Amanda Eskinazi, a University of Arizona biosystems engineering student in her junior year, and Nick French, a recent UA grad with a degree in Spanish split the learners into two groups, beginner and advanced.

The classroom was overcrowded but the importance overcame the inconvenience as voices from both groups blended into one positive sound of instruction and learning.

Frakes said that as a volunteer tutor she has found that the students' will to learn English surpasses the obstacles they face. The students will do what they can and sacrifice as much as they can to learn English.

"It makes a difference in their lives," Frakes said.

Ernesto Portillo jr.

Reporter Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. has deep roots in Tucson. His maternal great-great-grandfather, Argentine-born Onofre Navarro, lived here beginning in the 1860s. Contact Portillo at 807-8414 or

Volunteer tutor Janet Frakes helps English-language learners pronounce some common phrases during an English as a Second Language class Thursday at Myers-Ganoung Elementary School. Frakes, with Literacy Volunteers, has taught English to immigrants in Tucson for six years.

Benjie Sanders / Arizona Daily Star


Literacy Volunteers of Tucson was created in 1999 through the merger of two adult literacy groups.

It teaches basic literacy to 162 adult students and teaches English to 662 students. The total number of students this year jumped 49 percent over last year.

Seventy-five percent of students are women and 78 percent of all students are Latino. Sixty-eight percent of the group's funding comes from foundations, individual donors, bequests and United Way.