By Blair Anthony Robertson | Sacramento Bee
Karely Rios, 6, right, entertains herself Saturday while her mother, Kathy Rios, is tutored by a vocational education major in California State University, Sacramento's English language program for immigrant parents who want to get more involved in their children's education. By all accounts, the program has transformed both parents and tutors. Lezlie Sterling
Friday, June 27, 2008 - Every Saturday morning for the past month, behind closed doors and without fanfare, nine college students go about making their world a better place – one new word, one flipped flash card, one pat on the back at a time.
The students, all vocational education majors at California State University, Sacramento, provide tutoring services for immigrant parents with limited English skills so the parents can be more involved in their children's schoolwork.
By all accounts, the parents and Sacramento State students have been transformed by the experience.
"Every time we leave here, it's like, 'Wow,' " said Robert Greene, a senior. "Three weeks ago, I'd never done anything like this."
Though it's part of the college curriculum, the sessions have taken on added significance and personal meaning for the students, who are older than traditional college age and enrolled at Sacramento State with years of workplace experience already in hand. Several have pledged to continue tutoring even after the official classes are finished.
"Most of the parents don't speak English, so if they get a letter from school about their child, they don't know what's going on," said Corinna Martinez, a student who works as a project manager for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
By teaching basic English, the college students realize they are making an immediate difference. One parent with limited English, for instance, has nearly mastered a list of the 500 most common English words, missing the meaning of just nine. Another woman arrived at the latest tutoring session with a framed copy of her GED diploma.
"You get a connection right away," said senior Mellissa Truitt. "When you see how important it is for them to learn, you take it personally and you want to make an impact."
Many of the school-age children speak better English than their parents. That is the case with 6-year-old Karina, who watched over the shoulder of her mother, Maria Deluna, as Sacramento State student Leslie Morrill went over a page of pictures and words. Deluna is a native Spanish speaker, like the other parents in these sessions.
"We want to validate their culture, so we don't want them to lose their native language," said Morrill, "but they know they need to be able to communicate in English."
In addition to the three-hour tutoring sessions, student tutors devote significant time helping their assigned parent via the Internet. They've also arranged field trips – turning lunch meetings and grocery shopping into learning excursions.
"With adult learning, it has to be applicable to your life," said Martinez, who employs flash cards and newspaper ads for English instruction. "We're not teaching theory here."
The unusual class is the result of a meeting between an elementary school teacher once saddled with his own language limitations, and a college professor who wrote her doctoral dissertation on tutoring.
Richard Carrazana teaches second grade at Harmon Johnson Elementary School, whose student population is two-thirds Latino. Spanish is spoken through second grade before students make the transition to English instruction.
The school provides a workable solution for many immigrant children, but Carrazana began to realize that the parents were being left out of the loop.
"Assimilation – it's not just saying it but providing an opportunity," he said. "It means learning the ways of this great country. That's how you better society. Ignorance is not something we can count on."
Carrazana knows from experience. He moved to the United States from his native Bolivia 10 years ago after marrying an American.
Though he had a college degree, he first landed a job painting buildings because of his limited English. Six years ago, he began teaching. He is now fluent in three languages – Spanish, English and Russian.
Marcy Merrill, a professor in language and literacy and an expert on tutoring, oversees the program and says she is inspired by the creative ferment in the small community center.
"These are parents who want to help their children in school. No parents come because they don't want to. They are all choosing to spend their Saturday this way," she said. "Yes, the students are getting class credit, but they are also going above and beyond."
Indeed, the crowded computer room was bustling with learning exchanges on Saturday. Most of the college students don't speak Spanish, yet they were surprised to discover they were still able to teach English.
Terry Sheppard, a college senior at 62, is tutoring a 52-year-old grandmother. He bought her a book, "D Is for Democracy," and gave her a glimpse of the technological wonders available by using Google Earth to zero in on her neighborhood in Mexico.
"This is a fabulous opportunity as a citizen to give back," said Sheppard, who might otherwise spend a typical Saturday riding horses on his 16 acres in El Dorado County. "I think we all have to give back. People complain about the immigrant population, but we need to become more engaged. We need these people and they need us. Let's help them become a vibrant part of the community."