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Guadalupe: Gateway to opportunity

Students, teachers love school that teaches English

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Judging from bumper-to-bumper cars lining Salt Lake City's Goshen Street, you'd think parent-teacher conferences came every night at Guadalupe School.

And, in a sense, they do.

More than 100 area adults spend two nights a week with Guadalupe tutors, but they're not talking about children. Rather, they're here for the same reason they sought the Land of Liberty: to make a better life.

These folks are learning English under the school's Voluntary Improvement Program (VIP). About 200 adults receive individualized tutoring every year, and about 150 more are on a waiting list an average of three months — and often even longer — for their chance to learn the tongue of their new homeland.

"I love it here. I'm addicted," said Diane Cotsonas, a staff teacher with a master's degree in English as a second language who also works with University of Utah international graduate students wanting to become teaching assistants.

"At this school, there's so much energy. Students all want to be here. (Volunteer) tutors all want to be here. And the staff wants to be here," she said. "I feel I'm marking too many hours, but I can't take myself away because it's just too special."

It would be hard to call in sick on someone like Esther Munoz, an emigrant from Mexico who spent 15 years in Utah before receiving English tutoring.

Or someone like Clara Galvez, who works, cares for her children, cleans house and gets in a quick shower before rushing to Guadalupe twice a week.

Or someone like Hoa Phan, who walked in about a year and a half ago speaking no English but now is learning to give simple directions around town. She even totes a computerized Vietnamese-English dictionary to help with rough spots on classroom worksheets.

"A lot of it hits home," said Rachel Cope, a volunteer VIP tutor and Salt Lake Community College student whose great-grandparents emigrated from Mexico. Now, she works with Galvez, Muoz and two other Spanish-speakers.

"It's part of my heritage. It's cool to learn more about it," Cope said. "I think it's great there's a program like this that can help them."

Cope is among a cadre of 90 volunteers who come in Tuesdays and Thursdays or, thanks to additional funding, Mondays and Wednesdays. Funding for the program comes from United Way, Salt Lake County, the State Office of Education and private fund-raising efforts.

But there never seems to be enough, especially to reach the lofty goal of whittling the waiting list to zero. To do so, Guadalupe would need to double everything: salaries, space, volunteers and its five ESL teachers.

"There is such a need in this community for immigrants and refugees to gain services," said Freddie Nebeker, school development director.

Part of the issue is public attitude. Some people think of immigrants as burdens, and the community lacks services to help them build skills, Nebeker said.

And the English Only initiative stands only to further alienate them, said Tim Carr, Guadalupe executive director. Sometimes, it's easier to learn a language when there's a cross reference in a person's native tongue.

"I think it would make it much more difficult on individuals rather than affect institutions. We're trying to help individuals be more successful in life. If you live in the United States and English is the predominant language, they want to learn English (anyway)," Carr said. "Otherwise, they're limiting how successful they will be."

Utah voters in November will decide whether to make English the state's official language, a move twice rejected by the Legislature. The proposal would require all official documents, proceedings and meetings to be in English. Exceptions would be allowed for health and safety needs and to promote tourism. Public schools would have to adopt rules to help non-English-speaking children and adults read, write and understand the language as quickly as possible.

Supporters say the initiative aims to teach immigrants English; opponents say it damages cultural heritage.

Guadalupe's VIP students learn practical English, words used to help them get by, such as in job applications or bus schedules. Students may stay up to three years, but most stay 14 to 16 months because of demanding jobs and family lives.

Most VIP students come from Spanish-speaking or Vietnamese-speaking communities, where word has spread about the English tutoring offered at Guadalupe since 1966, said Kate Diggins, assistant VIP director. Those in the program are not considered refugees, who are served by different programs.

Most tutors don't speak the languages of their students, however. Instead, they build on simple words, beginning with pronouns and the verb "to be."

Students read worksheets along with tutors, then use words and phrases on their own. More advanced students fine-tune their pronunciation and broaden their vocabularies.

Students also have a chance to socialize in English and make new friends during a social break. They shuffle to a small cafeteria area, where they can munch on food — perishables that can't go to the Utah Food Bank — donated by local supermarkets.

"I love getting out of bed in the morning and going to work," Diggins said. "It's one of the best things I get to do all day."

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com