For Latinos, classes offer a chance to feel at home
Weekly English lessons draw those hungry for communication and community.
By EDDY RAMIREZ
Published February 4, 2007
INVERNESS - Mayra Castellon runs her fingers through her hair and heaves a sigh, struggling to come up with the correct tense for the word "go."
Teacher Pam Marshall watches her student struggle but doesn't want to interrupt. She waits until she finally asks for help.
"Do you say 'I go' or 'I went?" Castellon asks, a little embarrassed.
Marshall is not giving regular students a lesson on English grammar. The work that she and teacher Candace Sheldon are doing at Inverness Middle School is more challenging and ambitious.
The two are trying to help immigrant families feel as though they are part of Citrus County.
Once a week for two hours, families gather in the school's media center for conversation, games and food. They talk about work, their spouses and life in their native countries. English is spoken at all times. They learn vocabulary on computers.
"We're not trying to make them assimilate," Sheldon said. "We tell them, 'Bring your culture and share it with us. But we also want you to learn English so you won't be treated differently.' "
Although the classes are open to anyone who wants to improve his English skills, they draw mostly Spanish-speaking families.
That comes as no surprise to Sheldon and Marshall, who have seen the population of Latinos in Citrus County grow in recent years.
According to the most recent U.S. Census figures, the county's Latino population has increased since 2000. That year, Citrus was home to 3,140 Latinos compared with 4,490 Latinos in 2005.
As a percentage of the county's total population, Latinos still represent a small group. In 2005, they made up 3.4 percent of the county's total population, an increase of less than a percentage point since 2000.
"This is not going to stop," Sheldon said. "We are going to have more and more Latino families moving into our community."
The adults are grateful for the free English lessons.
Castellon, an immigrant mother from Nicaragua, has been coming to the classes since her daughter, Jessica, an eighth-grader at Inverness Middle, told her about them in September. Jessica, whose English is fluent, accompanies her mother to class and helps translate when she doesn't understand the teachers.
Castellon said she never bothered to learn English when she lived in Los Angeles and Miami because there was always someone who spoke Spanish behind a cash register or working at the doctor's office.
But she has struggled to find her way in Citrus since moving here six months ago.
Castellon said her limited English skills have kept her from finding a good job. Simple tasks like going to the supermarket and calling a handyman have became arduous and unpleasant.
"I don't like to leave the house," she said to a reporter in Spanish. "I just don't feel comfortable when I go out."
Both Marshall and Sheldon empathize with the families in the program.
Marshall spent four years with her husband on a U.S. naval base in Naples, Italy, and said she often felt inadequate because she didn't speak Italian fluently. She had a hard time ordering simple things like cheese or bread at the market.
Sheldon was a foreign student in Peru, and she said she often felt lonely and helpless. She fumbled her words whenever she ordered coffee or asked a native for directions. Her Spanish improved dramatically but only after someone agreed to tutor her. He eventually became her husband.
Today, Sheldon speaks almost fluent Spanish but still struggles with some words and grammar. Marshall doesn't speak Spanish and relies on Sheldon. When neither can find the right words to communicate, they gesture with their hands and speak slowly and clearly.
"We're their bridge to the community," Sheldon said, noting that few places in Citrus offer conversational English classes to recent arrivals. "And these families are hungry for learning."
Rosa Chausse, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, came to Citrus with an appetite that was especially big. Her husband, an American, doesn't speak Spanish, she said.
When they first met in the Dominican Republic, he used hand gestures and pointed to things to communicate.
Since the family moved to Citrus last September, Chausse and her two children, Rosy and Miguel Arubi, have made considerable progress learning English.
Thanks to the classes, Miguel and his stepfather have gotten closer, Chausse said. The two now talk with each other on fishing trips.
Chausse and her husband also have developed a stronger relationship.
"I used to hide in the house and tell my husband that I didn't want anything to do with anybody," Chausse said in Spanish. "Of course, he didn't understand me. But now I'm not scared anymore about going places and talking to people - even if my English isn't perfect."
Eddy Ramirez can be reached at email@example.com or 860-7305.
When the class meets
The classes are funded through the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant. The five-year, $1.6-million grant also is used to fund other outreach programs at the four middle schools. The English classes at Inverness Middle School are open to the public. The group meets Wednesdays at 5:30 p.m.