Local programs help immigrants learn to read English

Trained volunteers help others grasp the intricacies of the English language

By Gerald Rogovin

What does it mean to be able to read?

Every time you pick up a newspaper or magazine, read the warning labels on your prescriptions, open a letter from a friend or a birthday card -- STOP, and just for a moment, think how different your life would be if you couldn't read.

Mike Patroske, director of Catholic Social Services' English as a second language program, teaches a class in conversational English at the CSS campus on Pearl Street in Hyannis. Photo by Gerald Rogovin.The Cape Cod Literacy Council poses those questions in a fund-raising pamphlet that seeks contributions to its program to train volunteers on the Cape to teach people who have never learned to read.

Students enrolled in learning English as a second language include store clerks, retirees, fishermen, young parents, school dropouts and high school graduates. They are people who have memorized mountains of oral information all their lives to keep their secret, according to the Council.

Courses in English for speakers of other languages have grown in number and sophistication in the region in recent years, matching the growth of the immigrant population.

Brazilians dominate in the number of immigrants who seek their help, according to Kathryn Carpenter, Volunteer Coordinator at the Literacy Council, and Mike Patroske. He directs the Catholic Social Services ESL program. The two organizations have worked with immigrants from 16 countries, including China, Japan, Russia, Croatia, Haiti, Peru, Slovakia, El Salvador, Vietnam, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic.

Patroske thinks that Massachusetts and the Cape attract more immigrants because they feel comfortable here. The state is one of three, together with New York and Illinois, all with large immigrant populations, that decided not to participate in the federal government's Secure Communities program, which collects and records the fingerprints of immigrants.

"The people we teach in our ESL classes tell us they feel more comfortable with us," said Patroske. A Latin teacher at Barnstable High School for more than 30 years, he described the CSS program as "much more relaxed than the one at the high school. Our students want to learn English without grammar or exams. We accommodate them."

Last year in the U.S., 4.5 million income-earning adults who headed households spoke English "not well" or "not at all", according to the Census Bureau.

To become citizens, applicants are required by federal law to pass a naturalization test. They must be able to read, write and speak basic English.

Bob Albis, a Latin teacher at the Sturgis Charter School in Hyannis by day teaches a beginners class how to say "hello" and "goodbye" in English at the CSS campus on Pearl Street in Hyannis. Photo by Gerald Rogovin.Coping with illiteracy is a full-time occupation for the estimated 30,000 Cape Codders who cannot read, according to Dorothy Bozza, the Council's executive director. "Often the adults we help can't read a street sign, sign a check, read to their children or complete a job application," she wrote in a Council publication.

Patroske describes the four levels of ESL instruction at the CSS as "survival levels". "Our students need to speak English to order a pizza over the phone, order a meal in a restaurant, buy a car, even how to dial 9-1-1 for help in an emergency," he declared.

Their programs engage a significant number of immigrants and illiterate individuals. But they are not alone. Cape Cod Community College conducts the largest ESL program in the region. It offers day and evening classes on campus twice a week and evening classes at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School, Mashpee, Barnstable and Dennis-Yarmouth High Schools. Although there is a waiting list, you are encouraged to apply. Admission is free, and the off-campus courses run from September to June.  They are three hours long.

One-on-one tutoring and classroom instruction are offered and funded by the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and administered by Bristol College in Fall River. These include programs in basic literacy and conversational English on Martha's Vineyard and six other sites.

The Department's objective is to provide adults the opportunity to develop literacy skills needed to qualify for further education, job training and better jobs.

Both the Literacy Council and Catholic Social Services actively recruit and train volunteer teachers. The Council's Carpenter conducts training sessions 3-4 times a year to maintain a staff of about 30. Patroske's cadre of 12 classroom teachers and three tutors were found primarily in the Barnstable schools, where many still remember "Mr. Pat", as he was known at the high school.

For information on classes and/or tutoring in English as a second language, contact:
- Massachusetts Adult Literacy Hotline, 1-800 447-8844
- Cape Cod Community College, 508 375-5000
- Catholic Social Services, 508 771-6771
- Cape Cod Literacy Council, 508 771-0211

"The pressure on immigrants nationwide has been felt among our students," Patroske said. "Enrollment, about 220 a few years ago, is down to about 80. Students have been concerned about their status the past few years. We don't care if they're legal or not. That's not our business. We just want to help them assimilate," he added.

The two programs offer contrasts. Carpenter holds a Master's degree in educational technology and curriculum development. She uses her expertise to train literacy volunteers to use computer software in their teaching.

Patroske, who describes the CSS program as "really a bare bones operation," relies on newspaper articles for "textbooks" for his staff to teach vocabulary, American idioms and grammar. By recruiting retired teachers he became acquainted with in the Barnstable system, Patroske believes his staff can achieve its objectives without computers.

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