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A boost for adult language skills

Updated: December 30, 2012 4:35PM

The desks at Chicago Math and Science Academy can be a bit uncomfortable for grown-ups.

They look brand new, but they are made for the sixth- through 12th-graders who attend the charter school in Rogers Park.

This semester the school added a new class that meets three times a week: English as a Second Language for adults.

“I know what the need here is in Rogers Park,” said Astrid Engerman, who teaches the class and is the school’s ESL coordinator. “We have a lot of parents who have been in the country for many years. If there’s a class, they’ll take it.”

Churches, community centers and community colleges are known to offer such classes, mostly in the evenings and on weekends. Chicago Public Schools increasingly has offered ESL to adults in recent years, and Engerman used to teach a class for CPS.

Chicago Math and Science Academy incorporated a one-hour adult class into the school day, a preferred time by most of the adults since their children are in school, Engerman said.

Still, some arrive with young children, who sit quietly and read while their parents are quizzed on verbs and pronouns. A college student who works part-time in the Academy’s front office baby-sits a 1-year-old for one woman. It’s truly a community effort.

I have known many native Spanish speakers who never bothered learning English in the U.S., in part because they could get by with few English skills. Some are too busy juggling family life and work; others are too timid.

But how far can they really get with minimal English? Many never make it beyond minimum wage.

Alma Vargas, 33, a student in Engerman’s class, used to wash dishes at a restaurant and often relied on co-workers for informal English lessons. They encouraged her to learn English so she could move up.

Vargas is now a cashier. This is progress for someone starting over in a new country.

“Thank God,” she said. “With fear and all, I made it to cashier.”

Another student, Maria de los Angeles Aritzmendi, 54, is a bit more advanced with her English, and that helped her get an administrative job in which English and Spanish are required.

“I have to write reports,” she said. “It’s much better to do them in English. But I write like a little girl. I felt I needed to study it more.”

While observing the class, I could sense some students’ nervousness when Engerman called on them to answer questions on verb translation in the simple present tense.

“I’m afraid to answer,” a woman in the class said.

It reminded me of high school when I had that please-don’t-call-on-me knot in my stomach.

That sinking feeling is magnified for some immigrants who had little to no formal education in their native countries. It makes learning a second language daunting.

Engerman understands this and creates lessons according to the needs of each student. Her lessons come from the Internet, old phonics and a bit of Rosetta Stone. All her adult students this semester are Latino, not surprising considering 55 percent of the academy’s students are Latino.

The semester is ending for the adults and some asked Engerman to extend the class to two hours next semester. She probably can fit a 90-minute lesson with the schedule of her sixth- through 12th-graders, she said.

“They are committed,” she said. “I can see that with this group.”

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