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"No habla ingles": Immigrants who want to advance find many programs to help them learn English

June 5, 2006

No habla inglesImmigrants who want to advance find many programs to help them learn English

Osvaldo Escobedo was hungry to learn English.

It was bad enough when he couldn't advance at the Nissan Motor Co. plant in Aguascalientes, in central Mexico, because he couldn't converse in the business language of English.

Later, when he came to the United States, he couldn't eat much more than what he could pronounce.

"When I go to restaurant, I ask [for] 'coffee and doughnuts. Coffee and doughnuts. Coffee and doughnuts,'" Escobedo recalled.

Eventually, a waitress asked, "Do you like eggs? Do you like bacon? I said, 'Yes, but I don't know how you say it.'"

Escobedo is one of thousands of Hispanics in Indiana who recognize the ability to speak English isn't essential just to get by, but also for future employment opportunities.

Over the last several months, he's been learning to speak the King's English at an adult basic education class offered by the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township at Lynhurst Baptist Church.

It's one of several taxpayer- and privately funded efforts to help non-Englishspeaking workers-most are Hispanic-to be more productive and to advance.

The Indiana Department of Education last year allocated $10 million and the federal government $14 million for adult education programs offered at about 350 sites statewide. State officials said they did not immediately know what percentage of that education funding goes to teaching immigrants language skills.

Not being able to comprehend English might mean not being able to read safety signs on machinery or to understand the employee handbook or one's own pay stub, said Gloria K. Hubbuch, coordinator of Wayne MSD's adult basic education program.

"I think the business base really wants to help them grow in what they need to be successful," she said.

"There's no population we want to see kept down in the entry level and not rise," said Joanne Joyce, CEO of the Indianapolis Private Industry Council, or IPIC.

English language programs also may become more popular if Congress passes immigration reform, with some proposals making the ability to speak English a prerequisite for citizenship.

Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Marion County. In 2004, they represented nearly 6 percent of the population, or 48,000 people, according to data compiled by the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis

Failure to communicate

Lack of English fluency is starting to be recognized as a big problem in some industry sectors, such as logistics, where there is soaring demand for workers.

The industry has been able to fill lots of entry-level jobs with Hispanic workers coveted for their work ethic and willingness to accept lower pay. But employers often can't find enough qualified workers to fill more advanced positions because of the language barrier, according to "Growth and Change in Logistics in Central Indiana," a study commissioned by IPIC.

"These workers are clearly sought after by warehousing employers, but in many cases, these workers' poor command of English, combined with a lack of Spanish competence among managerial and supervisory staff, creates a different kind of skill gap that can render workplace interaction and efficiency more difficult to achieve," states the report.

"This is really the first place where we've begun to see some responses from employers," Joyce said.

"They were saying for the entry level jobs, the English, or lack of English proficiency, doesn't come into play as a big problem, initially. When it begins to become more critical is when they want to advance those workers to the next level," Joyce added.

Gauging the size of the language gap is difficult. But there were an estimated 10,000 Hispanics in Marion County in 2004 in need of English language classes for adults, according to the IUPUI report.

Yet the number of people served by organizations that teach English was only 2,870 that year, the center estimated.

Employers have taken much of the initiative. Caterpillar Logistics is offering English as a Second Language courses as it hires about 300 people in the Indianapolis area who don't speak English.

Pearson Education, which has distribution facilities here, also offers English language courses, according to the logistics report.

Meanwhile, PSI Group Inc, which operates a mail-processing center in Park 100 business park on the northwest side, plans to resume another round of English language classes soon for its mostly Hispanic employees. Most speak little or no English.

Putting together the course for PSI Group was Ivy Tech Community College, which delivers the courses on its campus and in the workplace.

But many immigrants need more than language skills.

According to the logistics study, FedEx Indianapolis officials say that not only are many Hispanic applicants not fluent in English, but they also don't have a high school diploma and can't pass the GED test. As a result, they don't get hired.

According to the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment study, almost half of Hispanic men and 42 percent of Hispanic women over age 25 in Marion County had no high school degree in 2000.

Therefore, efforts to teach English often are coupled with programs to help new arrivals complete their high school degrees. Many who complete Wayne Township's English language program at Lynhurst Baptist later use the program to achieve their high school equivalency.

"Once they get that GED, it opens up all kinds of employment opportunities," Hubbuch said.

Immigrant children also focus

As for the other end of the spectrum-children of immigrants who will enter the workplace-the Indiana Department of Education spends $700,000 a year on its Limited English Proficient student program.

The number of LEP students statewide has more than tripled, to nearly 32,000 from 9,114 in the 1999-2000 school year.

With annual funding steady despite the growth, per-capita student funding amounts to $21.91 per student versus $75 in 1999. About 225 school corporations in Indiana offer the program.

The state also receives $7.6 million in federal taxpayer money to assist children lacking in English proficiency, reaching 29,000 students statewide.

But some groups insist the cost is much higher and chafe at the notion that so much taxpayer money is flowing to what largely are illegal immigrants and their children.

The Valparaiso-based Indiana Federation for Immigration Reform & Enforcement estimates that the cost to educate those 29,000 students-mostly Hispanics-is more than $275 million a year, based on average per-student expenditures, plus an extra $1,000 per student for additional assistance above the basic cost of public school education.

Another $5 million goes for educating children of migrant farm workers whose learning is disrupted by moving. About 35 of the nearly 300 state school corporations are involved.

At least some think that such spending Spanish SOS

An inability to speak English is becoming a bigger issue in the metro area. Hispanics:

Are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Marion County, at about 6 percent of the population, or 48,000 people. Are mostly immigrants (61 percent), with 37 percent here five years or less. Need more places to learn English. About 10,000 need language assistance in Marion County, while just 2,870 were served in 2004 by various organizations. Source: Center for Urban Policy and The Environment at IUPUI will pay dividends later.

"We've always believed anytime you can help student grades you're developing a better educated, more able work force" later, said Darlene Slaby, director of language minority and migrant education programs for the IDOE.

Meanwhile, back at Lynwood Baptist, Escobedo and a handful of adult classmates are going over a lesson on grocery shopping. Here, they learn words and phrases such as "expiration date."

Many of the English lessons center on life skills such as banking, shopping and health care.

Escobedo pretty much has the reading and writing part down. It's listening comprehension that still gives him trouble.

"When I watch TV, the speed is too fast," he said.

He's working as a cook now, among other odd jobs, but says he wants to go back to Mexico. His new English skills may just help him in industrial management, for example.

Already behind him are those days of ordering only coffee and doughnuts at restaurants.

"That's the reason I don't like coffee" anymore, he said.
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