Breaking The Barrier

Parents Of City Students Take ESL Courses At Spotswood Elementary

Posted: May 3, 2014

Angela Hunt (left) of Massanutten Technical Center instructs Maricruz Lopez Lopez during an exercise in which she calls businesses on a cellphone and inquires about products and services. Hunt teaches one section of an ESL class for parents of Harrisonburg City Public Schools students at Spotswood Elementary School. (Photos by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
LEFT TO RIGHT: Angela Hunt, who teaches an ESL class for parents of Harrisonburg City Public School students, explains subject and verb agreement to students Pedro Serna, Raul Matute, Worku Semera, and Maricruz Lopez Lopez at Spotswood High School last month.
Raul Matute uses a Rosetta Stone program during an ESL class for parents of Harrisonburg City Public School students last month.

HARRISONBURG — Jose Hernandez commutes from Harrisonburg daily for painting work in Charlottesville. Although he moved here from Honduras 11 years ago to be closer to family, he still primarily speaks Spanish.

His 9-year-old son, Christian, speaks much better English than he does — he laughed when he said his son has been helping him learn to speak the language — but Hernandez is working on that.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings, despite working full time, he goes to Spotswood Elementary School for a two-hour English class, taught by instructors from Massanutten Technical Center.

To get it all done, he drives quickly, he joked.

“It’s important to know it,” Hernandez said. “It’s important to speak English in this country.”

The class, for parents of children attending Harrisonburg City Public Schools who have started with little to no English proficiency, has been running since the end of January and will wrap up its semester soon. Students say it has been worth their time — Hernandez said it has made his job easier — and helped them become more comfortable speaking with others in English.

At last count, at the end of March, at least half the city’s students in kindergarten through third grade have limited English proficiency, and more than a third have limited English proficiency across the division.

Still, most children have an easier time learning English than their parents because they’re immersed throughout the school day. So the class at Spotswood helps parents catch up.

Parents spend about an hour using Rosetta Stone’s language-learning software, and also have an hour of instruction and conversation. There are lots of games and activities to help them put their new skills in context, too. Some of the parents said they’re often afraid to eat in restaurants because they can’t speak English, so Harrisonburg High School students acted as wait staff and helped them practice ordering from menus.

Perhaps most obviously, parents have been taking the class because they want to be able to better communicate with others who don’t speak their native language. But they also know English skills could improve their chances of getting better, higher-paying jobs, and they want to be able to better communicate with their kids’ schools, too.

“All of them said they want to be able to communicate with their children’s schools, their children’s teachers,” said Angela Hunt, of MTC, who teaches one section of the class. “They want to be able to talk to them.”

Most parents taking the class are native Spanish speakers, as are most English language learners in the school division. But as of January, 44 languages were represented in HCPS, which presents interesting challenges for city schools staff and parents alike. Refugee families move to Harrisonburg year-round from all over the world, and it can be difficult to find translators for non-Spanish speakers.

Mairani Antonio, 8, is a second-grader at Spotswood whose mother is taking the class. Mairani was born in Harrisonburg, but her older sisters and her mother moved here from Mexico. She’s noticed that her mother’s English pronunciation has improved significantly since she started the class, she said, and she sometimes helps her practice.

Although Mairani is bilingual, she doesn’t usually help her mother with translation — her oldest sister takes care of that when it’s necessary. Many other young children in Harrisonburg do have to take on that responsibility, but teachers try to avoid it, according to Spotswood teacher Grace Satterfield, who works with kids after school while their parents are in class.

“When the child starts translating for the parents, then it’s like the parents are relying on the child, so it kind of creates this imbalance of power,” she said. “So we discourage that as much as possible, but sometimes, when you’re talking about languages like Kunama, there’s one person in this area who can translate that. And thankfully, we know that person, and she’s available to us, but if she’s not available to us and you have to talk to the parents, you have to do what you can.”

It’s hard, but she and other teachers are encouraged to do whatever it takes to directly communicate with parents. Sometimes, that means drawing pictures and using a lot of hand gestures.

Although the class initially reached capacity quickly and some people had to be turned away, attendance has gone down since the beginning — it can be a lot to raise a family, work full time and tack on four hours of classes in a week’s time. Some parents, like Glenda Rodriguez, who moved from El Salvador nine years ago, have lived in Harrisonburg for years and tried numerous times to learn English, but family, work and life in general have gotten in the way.

In the past, Rodriguez has had to stop taking classes because she needed to be at home with her daughters, she said.

“I’ve been here for nine years and I’ve taken classes but I have to quit sometimes, because I have two daughters and daughters are challenging,” she said with the help of RaMona Stahl, supervisor of HCPS’ Welcome Center. “Because of the age they are, they’re really challenging, so I need to be at home. I need to pay attention to them.”

Even at the Spotswood class, which costs $30, attendance is an uphill battle, said Stahl. The program offers childcare during class time, but can’t care for babies. Automatically, that rules out participation for parents who don’t have anyone else to watch their young children.

“We had a lot more people that wanted to participate that weren’t able to [because of space],” Stahl said. “On the other hand, our numbers fall dramatically, and they always do, because it’s hard. Sometimes, it’s just more than what you can do. ... When push comes to shove, you really need to make supper for your kids.”

Luz Guzman, who moved from the Dominican Republic two years ago, works at Massanutten Resort and said it’s hard to make it to class sometimes, but it’s important.

“Sometimes I come really tired,” she said through Stahl. “But you have to force yourself. In order to move forward, you have to force yourself.”

Contact Kassondra Cloos at 574-6290 or

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