LearningQuest literacy center programs draw kids into helping parents’ ESL progress

See the original Modesto Bee article by Deke Farrow HERE

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Rosa Cisneros looks through a workbook during her LearningQuest ESL night class at Eisenhut Elementary School in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.  AALFARO@MODBEE.COM

Eisenhut Elementary School fifth-grader Jeanette Cisneros has a straightforward way of helping her mom, Rosa, improve her English language skills.

“Sometimes I don’t understand some Spanish, so I just tell her, ‘Speak English,’ and that helps her,” the child said. Her blunt comment drew laughs from her mom and Karen Williams, executive director of LearningQuest-Stanislaus Literacy Centers, as the three sat at a cafeteria at the north Modesto school one recent evening.

Every occasion to speak English does help Rosa Cisneros, who more than 15 years ago immigrated to the U.S. from Peru with her parents and little brother. Just 15 then, she was thrust into high school, where she struggled to improve her language skills.

“It was really hard for me,” she said as she waited for her LearningQuest ESL night class to begin at Eisenhut, and Jeanette and her brother, Daniel, took part in the Kids Club offered for children of the English-as-a-second-language students. “But with the passage of years, I just get a job and my English started coming out.

“And now my kids help me a lot because they only want to speak English at home. It’s hard for them to speak Spanish at home.

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Jeanette Cisneros, 10, participates in Kids Club, for children of English-as-a-second-language students, during her mother’s at LearningQuest ESL night class at Eisenhut Elementary School in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. ANDY ALFARO AALFARO@MODBEE.COM

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Daniel Cisneros, 5, participates in Kids Club, for children of English-as-a-second-language students, during her mother’s at LearningQuest ESL night class at Eisenhut Elementary School in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019. ANDY ALFARO AALFARO@MODBEE.COM

Living in the home are Cisneros and the kids, her parents and her Chicago-born husband, Daniel, who’s of Mexican heritage and speaks both English and Spanish fluently. Cisneros’ parents are Spanish speakers, but her mom has joined Rosa and the children in LearningQuest’s family literacy/ESL classes for three years.

The classes work with parents on English skills and also are structured to provide the children with additional support in English reading and writing skills, Williams said. Parents receive books throughout the year to form a home library, attend library events and are issued a library card to encourage attendance at story times and checking out books for the family.

“Rosa has also participated in our PACT (Parent and Child Together) programs the last two years,” Williams said. “These programs are an additional four weeks a year of demonstrating learning activities parents can do with their children in the home by having parents and their children learning in class together.”

PACT themes have included:

  • Art — paper lanterns, canvas art and dream catchers, growing a garden

  • History — dinosaurs, ancient civilizations, medieval times

  • Science — creating slime, ice cream, crystals

  • Safety — water safety, stranger danger, community leaders (firefighters and police officers)

Jeanette recalled that one fun activity was creating “elephant toothpaste,” the rapidly expanding, foamy result of combining warm water and yeast with hydrogen peroxide, food coloring and liquid dish soap.

PACT teaches parents that not having strong language skills doesn’t have to be a barrier to helping their children learn, Williams said. “We show them you can be a teacher of your children, and here’s how.”

Cisneros is one of LearningQuest’s highest-scoring ESL students, Williams said. When she entered the program, she tested at a “high intermediate” level and has since increased two levels, now testing at the highest.

She’s passed all objective tests, performing certain tasks such as:

  • Communicating with health care professionals — asking questions during an examination, or about medicine prescriptions, and scheduling an appointment with a doctor.
  • Interacting with the school system — communicating with the school office about a child’s absence, asking questions at a parent/teacher conference, and being involved as a volunteer at school.

Jeanette has seen great improvement in her mom’s communication skills. “When I was younger, she tried to talk English but mostly spoke Spanish.” That usually left the girl to turn only to her father for homework help. “Little by little, she’s gotten to speak more English, and I can understand her now.”

What Cisneros primarily gets from her ESL classes now is help to improve her writing. She took college courses for a couple of years, she said, but was hampered by her poor writing skills.

The 31-year-old, who works full time in fast food in addition to being a parent and student, said she realizes that improving her writing will be key in finding success in college and a career. She recommends LearningQuest to others like herself because “most people don’t want to stay in one place, they want to grow in job and life and give more opportunities to themselves and their kids.”

She wishes she could get more ESL instruction than her two-hour classes twice a week. “We hear a lot of that: ‘Can we get four days?’” Williams said.

But LearningQuest, which according to its website gets 88 percent of its funding from government grants and contracts for service, can’t meet existing demand. There’s a waiting list of more than 100 people who want to take classes, but services have been capped because of the staffing level, Williams said.

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Rosa Cisneros prepares for her LearningQuest ESL night class as instructor Mark Lawicki looks on at Eisenhut Elementary School in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.  AALFARO@MODBEE.COM

Donations will be crucial to the organization’s ability to thrive. Its site says the goal is to “continue to increase funding from donations by 4 percent per year until at least half of all income is from donations.”

Monetary contributions can be made through The Bee’s Book of Dreams, and LearningQuest also has a need for volunteer tutors and book donations. It just ended a holiday book drive, but “we take books all the time,” Williams said. “We give books to the kids because a good predictor of how well they will do in school is how many books are in the home.”

To learn more about LearningQuest-Stanislaus Literacy Centers, go to lqslc.com.

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