Classes are filled quickly in Howard programs, but lack of room forces many to wait

Immigrants put focus on English


Korean native Miae Kim told her two classmates that she had gone to church Sunday and then to work.

Sandra Gutierrez of Costa Rica listened, then said, "My weekend was very busy." Nearby, Lan Nguyen of Vietnam listened amid a hubbub of similar conversations in a cheerful classroom of 26 immigrant English students at Howard Community College.

The women were practicing answers to everyday questions in Nancy Hutchison's intermediate English course.

Class members can speak some English, but haltingly.

"They can function, they can get by, but they need an interpreter at a PTA meeting or their children to interpret at the doctor's office," Hutchison said.

The students in Hutchison's free, state-funded Tuesday morning class are determined to improve their English skills. They are among 800 immigrants who signed up for English classes this fall (1,600 for the school year) at the college.

An additional 250 immigrants a year - some illiterate in their own languages - get help from the Howard County Library's Project Literacy. Others seek instruction from private nonprofits including the Foreign Born Information Network (FIRN) and Alianza, a Howard-based Hispanic advocacy group.

"Most immigrants want to learn English," said Roy Appletree, executive director of FIRN.

However, many immigrants have to wait for English language classes in Howard County because there is not enough room, officials say.

"There are immigrants waiting who have been turned away," Appletree told Howard County legislators at a recent breakfast sponsored by the Association of Community Services, an umbrella group for 150 social service agencies. "There are not enough slots."

Language proficiency is a focus of the group's legislative agenda this winter because it is vital to people's ability to gain access to information and services they need but might not know how to obtain.

In addition, providing interpreters costs health and human services agencies heavily at a time when their budgets are strained by years of freezes and cuts.

Classroom space isn't the only problem immigrants face, said Sue Song, president of the Howard County Korean American Association.

"Often the problem is transportation, hours and logistics," she said, not to mention cultural barriers for those established enough economically to work on improving their English.

And the college's classes don't serve undocumented people, said Viviana Simon, president of the board of Alianza, which helped 32 students learn English last year using high school volunteers.

"We don't ask any questions, but they do," she said, referring to HCC. A scarcity of times and locations and tuition of up to $210 a semester for higher-level courses discourage some who don't get into classes.

"You have to enroll as soon as the classes are open, and there isn't enough space," Simon said.

Becky Lessey, director of programs for the foreign born at the college, said many beginning and intermediate classes are free because of a $308,000 state grant.

"By mid-April, we've pretty much used up that money," she said. "Anything we offer, the college has to support or charge tuition for."

Summer classes are typically tuition only.

The library's Project Literacy gets $150,000 from the state and uses volunteer tutors, said director Valerie Gross.

The college offers more than 90 classes a year, said Rebecca Price, who coordinates classes in English as a second language. There are nine levels of fluency. Koreans are the largest group of students, with Spanish speakers second.

"We are packed," Price said. "Facilities are a problem, so we use space at Wilde Lake High School, too, and the volume is increasing."

The college doesn't keep track of how many potential students are turned away.

Census figures for 2000 to 2004 show that Howard's Asian population grew 42 percent, from 19,304 to 27,441, and the Hispanic population increased by a third, from 7,490 to 9,977.

The white population increased 1.1 percent during that period, and the black population grew 14 percent. The total county population is estimated at 266,738.

The women in the HCC class finish their conversation drills and move upstairs to a computer lab to work on grammar.

"We see 500 people come through here a week," said Julie Fanara, lab instructor. Seven years ago, she said, there was one pronunciation class. Now there are five.

Hutchison said 14 countries are represented in her Tuesday morning class.

"It brings a richness to their conversation," she said.

Gutierrez, 39, of Columbia is the mother of three teenagers and works for Alianza. Kim, 48, also of Columbia, said she and her husband have two adult children and own a women's clothing store in Washington.

Nguyen, 36, of Silver Spring has a 15-year-old daughter. She said she works 11-hour days in a nail salon. "I want to learn more English," she said. "In the future, I'm taking [a] computer class."

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