Education summit focuses on immigrant programs


Waiting lists for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and the need to restore support to Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs brought local educators, policymakers and community together for a Saint Paul Community Literacy Consortium Adult Basic Education Summit at the Ronald M. Hubbs Center for Lifelong Learning on Sept. 15.

The panel was moderated by Mike Burbach, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and included State Senator Ellen Anderson, Wilson Bradshaw, President, Metropolitan State University, State Senator John Hottinger, Tom Olson, Assistant Director, Community Education Adult Learning Programs, State Representative Cy Tao, and Deborah Schlick, executive director of Affirmative Options.

State Senator Ellen Anderson said that ABE is important for “workforce, education and democracy.” She said that with the aging baby-boomer generation, that the anticipated population growth in the region over the next two decades would come from immigrants and that many of them will have limited English language skills. For the sake of the economy, she wants the state to ensure that every single person that needs to has an opportunity to learn English and get the basic skills they need to be part of the workforce.

“It’s a matter of economic self-interest, if nothing else,” she said.

Anderson said that early childhood education is also a priority for new American families, and that it will be more effective if the parents of children know English.

“It is an absolute disgrace that there is a waiting list for adult English language programs,” she added.

Tom Cytron-Hysom, facilitator, SPCLC, said the program is unique for its community involvement and cross-cultural sensitivity. He said the collaboration works well to improve the quality and availability of adult literacy services. SPCLC was rated among the top two percent of ABE programs nationally.

The shining example, he said, was the “tremendous mobilization” that came prior to the influx of thousands of Hmong refugees from the Wat Tham Krabok influx nearly two years ago.

Today, the SPCLC places the adjustment of refugees and immigrants as a major component of the program. They have expanded the definition of literacy to fit needs of the current economy. An ABE student can no longer rely on basic reading and writing skills alone. Today’s literate adult must have higher technological that employers demand – and better life skills for a society they are just learning.

Funding was frozen over the past four years, with the exception of a three-percent increase last year. SPCLC delivered 1,208,334 service hours to 12,024 students in 2006, a 20 percent increase in service hours over 2005.

The SPCLC is counting on more support to fully restore the programs with its 17 member organizations. Currently, they are suffering from a lack of space, teachers and other resources.

The current SPCLC Members include: Capitol Hill English School, Communidades Latinas Unidos en Servicio, East Metro OIC, Guadalupe Alternative Program, Hmong American Partnership, SPPS Adult Learning, Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family Service, Lao Family Community, Lifetrack Resources, Minnesota Literacy Council, MORE Multicultural School for Empowerment, Neighborhood House, St. Paul Public Library, and Vietnamese Social Services.

Cytron-Hysom said the community needs to better understand the crucial role of ABE and its impact with, and without the programs. When the community begins to act collectively, he said then policymakers will understand the impact on the economy and society.

There is no easy fix, he added. “At this point, we have reached a dead-end. The only way to stop service erosion is a significant influx of state funding.”

Meria Carstarphen, Superintendent Saint Paul Public Schools, the fiscal agent of the SPCLC, said that ABE programs support SPPS K12 efforts through family literacy and parent education. It also supports the economic wellbeing of families, and gives adult learners a second chance at academic success. She said that ABE plays a critical role in integration of refugees and immigrants who are new to community in a school community.

“That is huge for us, especially given our history and legacy of Saint Paul,” she said. “ABE increases the likelihood of success for our adult learners by building the basic literacy skills needed for the workforce as preparation for getting jobs and preparation for college or post secondary work.”

There was plenty of testimony to the positive impact that ABE has had on immigrant families and their succeeding generations.

State Representative Cy Thao (DFL-65A) said he is an example of what ABE can do for families, as a son of two Hmong immigrants that came to America in their 30s.

“They learned their ABCs while I was learning my ABCs,” Thao recalled. “I was reading their books and they were reading my books. We went through this together.”

Thao recalled that this was the first time that his parents had an opportunity for a formal education. In ten years his father earned his GED, and his mother a year later. It was important for them, to show their kids that they could accomplish this, so that they knew that they could go on to accomplish even bigger goals.

“(My father) had a short time to catch up and to live the American dream,” said Thao. “He was able to do that, and at the same time he would not have been able to do that without ABE.”

Vallay Varro, the Education Director for the Office of Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, said her parents struggle to become citizens is not unlike other new Americans. As a child, she sat in the kitchen with her parents trying to help them prepare for the citizenship test. She was teaching them about the three branches of government and American history, at an age where she could barely understand it herself.

“It wasn’t just me,” said Varro. “It was a lot of dedicated and passionate adult teachers who really pushed my parents to be able to finish their journey. If it wasn’t for them and their persistence, I wouldn’t be standing in front of you today as an American citizen.”

My Yee Xiong, a Hmong homemaker who came from Laos just three years ago, attends about 20 hours of English language classes at Hmong American Partnership.

“My English class is very important to me because I want to help my children read, speak and write English,” she said. For myself I would like to get a job as a receptionist at a company or a doctors office. For this job I will need to learn many skills. I need English class and a teacher to help me. I cannot learn by myself.”

Tina Linton, Adult Diploma Learner, a single parent, said the other ABE students, along with the staff and faculty has provided an environment of encouragement for learning that is necessary for adults that drop out of school and want a second chance a higher education. She said the experience has not only helped her meet goals, but to help her own children excel and reach their potential.

Deborah Schlick, executive director, Affirmative Options, said that nearly half of the people on public assistance do not have a high school diploma. To help people out of poverty and into self-sufficiency, she said people on assistance should have access to ABE programs.

“They ought to leave with more skills that make it possible for them to earn a better living for their families,” she said. “We have a common mission and common benefit and education is the key.”