The need to read

Literacy program helps break the language barrier

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

SUISUN CITY - Benita Rangel felt alone in this town of diverse people.

She was lost, frustrated and made to feel odd when she arrived in the area 16 years ago because she spoke a different language.

People looked at her like they would a rare insect, or un bicho raro as Rangel puts it in her native Spanish language, her big brown eyes peeking above her small-framed specs. Many refused to help and mocked her lack of understanding. They are small pockets of reminiscences etched in her memory that will never go away.

But there is no bitterness in this petite woman with streaks of shimmering gray hair that frames her young-looking face.

Rangel, 49, is an immigrant from Mexico, namely from the town of Michoacan, the "soul of Mexico."

She came to Suisun City in 1989 with two young daughters and a shoulder bag big enough to carry six youth-sized outfits. She did this because she wanted a better life for her girls, Rangel said, and she wanted them to know their father, a construction worker who made yearly visits from the States.

But life was difficult in this melting pot of a country for Rangel. The obstacle of not speaking English hindered her in performing daily routines taken for granted by so many Americans.
She spent most of her time at home, inside a crowded one-bedroom apartment, going out only when necessary and conversing with the select few who spoke her language.

It would take 14 years for Rangel to begin changing her life, when a flyer in the Fairfield library offering classes for English as a second language caught her eye.

For two years, Rangel has been dedicating two nights a week in the library to learning English. And despite the difficulties of learning this complex language, Rangel finds she has opened a doorway to verbal freedom.

"I feel more secure, not 100 percent, but I don't go out with fear that someone will ask me something I don't know," said Rangel, now the mother of four girls. "I was intimidated, now I'm more secure."

Reading at the library

Within the library, a small room framed with a glass window keeps the subtle whispers out. But Rangel welcomes the varying sounds of English inside her mind.

She sits quietly and listens to Lorenzo Hays-Phillips, her tutor, speak the words Rangel is attempting to learn.

"These libraries are the most precious jewels in the county," he said. The 41-year-old Fairfield resident, who just switched his major from computer science to teaching, enjoys seeing his students learn.

Beside her is Ahtziri Rangel, her 7-year-old daughter, sporting a pink "Winnie the Pooh" book bag. Her young fingers fiddle through the pages of a large book as her mom repeats a few verbs with Hays-Phillips.

Since 1995, the Solano County Library has offered formal literacy programs to the public, helping adults improve their reading and writing skills through volunteer tutors.

In the past year alone, 176 adults were taught to read, many of whose goals include acquiring their driver's license to passing a general education diploma exam.

"They set goals they want to reach and the tutor works with them to meet it," said Sandy Tosti, program manager for Literacy Services. "But we try to focus on small steps to make it manageable for the student."

The high impact of immigrants settling in the community later helped launch the English as a Second Language program in 2002. It's a way to meet the demands of a growing community.

"According to the last census, 21 percent of Solano County's population is foreign-born and 45 percent of them speak Spanish at home," said Tosti.

Beginning in July 2004, the reading program has served a total of 267 adult learners as of June 30, 2005, Tosti said, 91 of who were tutored in English as a second language.

She sees this program as an advocate to non-readers and non-English speakers. But accommodating all of them, Tosti said, may be a problem.

"We have noticed an increase in those wanting to read and those wanting to speak English," she added. "But we are short on volunteers. We currently have a waiting list of about 65. We need tutors."

The foundation of reading

Lilli Ede's first-grade students at Crescent Elementary School glisten with bright eyes and eager souls.

Inside this little corner in Suisun City, where Ahtziri Rangel speaks to "Mrs. Ede" with a slight lisp, a class comprising 20 minorities fill the wooden seats and low desks. Of these, four are Hispanic English learners - Spanish is their main language.

Rangel, a frequent volunteer in her daughter's class, stands over 6-year-old Bryan Carillo, a handsome little boy donning three gold rings and a flashing smile. He is learning to match words with pictures.

"Match the word with a picture," Rangel gently says to him in English. He hesitates for a moment and looks at her quizzically.

"Es el nombre de una persona," she says in Spanish, it is the name of a person. Together, their lips slowly word the name written in the book and finally, Carillo says the name.

"Muy bien," Rangel says to him with a comforting smile. "Very good."

Being able to translate difficult words from English to Spanish is an advantage she offers the students in this class, Rangel said, because they don't always understand what they're reading.

"When they don't understand something, I can explain it to them in Spanish," Rangel said. "But more than anything, it's difficult for them when they don't have help at home."

Behind a crescent-shaped table is Ede, holding "The Lion and the Mouse" book in one hand while speaking quietly but directly to a small group of students.

"Our brain has to think, 'What is this story about? What is the author telling me?' " Ede says to the engrossed students, three of whom are Hispanic.

"I read that book at home with my grandmother," Carillo says enthusiastically to Ede. "But it was in Spanish."

Ede, now in her third year of teaching at Crescent Elementary School, finds the number of English learners increasing throughout the year. Ask her if these students understand English by this grade and the teacher doesn't hesitate to answer.

"It depends if English is spoken at home. I can tell when they have help at home," she says. "You can just look at the blank faces and know they don't understand."

Which is why Rangel signed on her youngest daughter, Ahtziri, to the Families for Literacy program at the library, a literacy program extended to the entire family of learners who have a preschool-aged child. She is one of the 129 children impacted in the past year by their parents' instruction at the library.

"Benita's daughter is one of my top students in the class," she says of Ahtziri, who participated in the literacy program with her mother. "I can tell she's had help in reading."

Falling through the cracks

Ron Pullen, a 43-year-old truck driver, recently learned how to read as well as write letters to his mother.

He sits inside the library wearing a gray T-shirt and jeans, with his tutor, Jenny Sutton, beside him. He looks around the room then gives a sarcastic laugh.

"Am I angry at the education system? I'm angry at them and at my parents!" he says. His parents, both with an education that exceeded high school, separated when Pullen was 12 years old.

"They still blame each other for their break-up but that doesn't matter to me. They were supposed to help me," the Vacaville resident says with certainty. "But I was a rebel during my youth."

Still, he went on to attend Lake Elsinore High School in Riverside County, 71 miles from the Los Angeles County line. Here, where 500 students of varying backgrounds filled the building, and where Pullen specialized in metal shop and wrestling, the teenage boy graduated without knowing how to read the name on his diploma.

And years ago that wasn't difficult to do, Pullen said, because delinquents could fall right through the cracks without getting noticed.

"I was a kid with a learning problem that needed one-on-one and teachers knew I had a problem," he added with incredulous eyes. "But no one cared. I didn't."

After graduation, he found plenty of laborious work, taking applications home for someone else to fill out. Finally, after working 10 years at a local ranch, Pullen began taking literacy classes at the library.

With the help of Sutton, Pullen acquired his Class B driver's license, meaning he could drive a 3-axle vehicle weighing more than 6,000 pounds gross weight. This led Pullen to finding a better paying job.

"I took the test the first time and didn't pass because I got so nervous," he said. "I studied longer, went back and passed. Now they want me to go get my A license (any single vehicle with a gross weight of more than 10,000 pounds)."

Pullen, now able to read with little hesitance, still takes lessons from Sutton and now reads for fun.

"Why not?" he added.

Her independence

Today, Rangel can be found shopping at Raley's or Albertson's markets, handling bank transactions or helping her daughters with their homework. All because she took the first step toward learning English.

"No doubt people who don't speak English should look for help," she says. "I took 16 years to learn it and I realize there are a lot of people out there willing to help."