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Plaza Comunitaria Literacy Programming @ the Library

by Yolanda Medina on March 19, 2013

Since the 1860s, public libraries have been providing adult literacy programs to immigrants by teaching English and citizenship classes. After the American Library Association (ALA) created a manual for adult literacy in libraries in the 1980s, adult literacy programs began to grow. Today many types of libraries go beyond ESL and citizenship classes and offer computer classes; pre-GED and GED preparation courses; and family, basic, health, civic, and financial literacy programs. Due to lack of state funding, many ESL and GED classes have been closed. Many libraries have picked up the slack for a service that is required more than ever.

According to the 2010 US Census, there are 50.5 million people of Hispanic origin in the United States compared to 35.3 million in 2000. Hispanics are the largest growing population in the United States with a 43 percent growth since 1990. According to Mexico’s 2000 Census, 53 percent of their population did not complete intermediate-level education. In 2010, the Pew Hispanic Center stated that 52 percent of Hispanics in the United States are high school dropouts compared to 25 percent of the native born. Among Hispanic dropouts, some 21 percent of the native born have a GED, compared with just 5 percent of the foreign born. Unemployment rates are higher and salaries are lower for those who do not have a high school diploma. Studies have shown that the development of a second language is dependent on the knowledge of the first language.

The Plaza Comunitarias Program was created in 2001 under the administration of Mexican President Vicente Fox and accepted in the United States through a Memorandum of Understanding between the Mexican and United States governments dated November 10, 2004. The Plazas Comunitarias serve as transitional programs into English and adult basic education classes as it establishes an academic foundation for Hispanic immigrants from which to work. There are four hundred Plaza Comunitarias programs in the United States.

In 2005, the Texas Library Association awarded the Richardson (Tex.) Public Library (RPL) a grant to send one of its staff members to Mexico to receive training in the Plazas Comunitarias Program. Plaza Comunitaria is a free curriculum in Spanish created by the Mexican National Institute of Adult Education (INEA) to help Hispanics learn to read and write in their native language and finish elementary- and intermediate-level education certified by the Mexican Department of Education.

The Mexican Consulate offices in Dallas became RPL’s liaison with the INEA. A work program agreement was signed in 2006 between INEA, the Mexican Consulate, and RPL. This agreement would give us access to INEA’s registration and testing online system known by its acronym SASACE. We also have access to all textbooks (print versions, online editions, and PDF files).

In 2006, RPL was granted $5,000 from the Texas Book Festival to purchase three computers and one printer for the Plaza Comu-nitaria. The library provided us with four additional computers in a former supervisor’s office that are connected to the City of Richardson’s computer network. Additional grants provided funding for ESL, citizenship, and GED materials. The library provides an annual budget of $5,000 that covers printing, supplies, instructional materials, and a dinner for the graduation ceremony.

In July 2006, the Plaza Comunitaria @ Richardson Public Library Program was inaugurated. Announcements were sent to Hispanic newspapers and radio stations, supermarkets, churches, schools, and public libraries all over the Dallas metropolitan area. We had planned to reach twenty-five adult learners but we inaugurated with sixty-three instead. We recruited and trained twelve Latino volunteer tutors who would work two hours per week in study groups. By the end of 2006, we had registered 110 adult learners. We now work with an average of two hundred students every year. All students must take diagnostic testing provided by SASACE to determine their course of study. Free copies of the books assigned to the students are printed and provided at the library’s expense. The library offers us three classroom spaces and a computer lab.

Like all adult literacy programs, some challenges were presented. As of 2011, we were working with an average of two hundred students per year with a 70 percent retention rate. Students come and go due to family and work problems. Lack of space and volunteer tutors to work with individual students also present a challenge. The curriculum can be overwhelming to many students. Basic literacy students––those learning to read and write as adults––take a considerable amount of time to learn. Because of their indigenous roots, many are learning a structured language for the first time. About half of the basic literacy students drop the program due to frustrations and low self-esteem. Our job is not only to teach, but to motivate. We motivate our students by organizing classes at their convenience, providing motivational speakers, and celebrating their triumphs.

Each book in the curriculum requires one to three months to complete and test except for basic literacy, which takes an average of a year to complete the first book. Both elementary- and –intermediate-level students are required to complete a total of twelve books to complete an educational level. All books in the curriculum are based on life and work skills and are written exclusively for adults.

We work with an average of fifteen volunteer tutors per year. Volunteer tutors are hard to retain because of the profound commitment tutoring requires. Recruitment and training of volunteer tutors is continuous. We visit professional and cultural associations to recruit tutors. Most of the tutors at this time are former students of the program. Tutors must be competent in any of the academic areas such as mathematics, Spanish, history, and science. To be effective, tutors must remain with their students for the duration of the book they study. They meet for three hours weekly for an average of twenty weeks except for the basic literacy students. The average stay of a volunteer tutor is one year but we have two volunteers that have been with us for six years and ten that have been with us for more than two years.

Volunteer tutor training is essential. Tutor training is directly connected to retention. INEA and local literacy organizations provide us with training. Individual training is also provided by the coordinator to all volunteer tutors. Lesson planning, educational resources, and teaching techniques are discussed during the training sessions. Volunteer tutors are presented with all types of challenges with adult learners because most of these adults do not possess study skills or read for pleasure. Some students are completely illiterate or are undereducated. Volunteer tutors must buy into the program to stay with it, which is why most of the tutors are former students who have received the services provided. The tutors feel the urge to pay it forward or to give to the community in a significant way. Tutors do change lives and these changes can be seen in their students.

One of our volunteer tutors, Josefina, finished her elementary, middle school and GED preparation course in Spanish with the Plaza Comunitaria Program and is now teaching basic literacy to illiterate Hispanics. Josefina was our Volunteer of the Year in 2012. She not only has changed her life but is determined to change the lives of others. Josefina does not drive so she walks from her home to the library. She has the patience and compassion of a saint and talks to everyone about how education has changed her view of the world and has given her hope for her future and her children.

Partnerships are essential to the success of the program. In September 2009, the Plaza Comunitaria program partnered with the Richardson Independent School District After-School Program, which provides us with two paid teachers who work with a group of twenty intermediate-level students once a week for three hours at a school facility. Ninety-two percent of these adult learners continued the program and the rest were replaced with new students. They took their subject tests and passed them. Another partner is the Richardson Adult Literacy Center, a non-profit organization that has worked with the library for more than fifteen years providing ESL instruction. ESL is taught in six levels with average groups of fifteen students at a school facility. The space required for classroom purposes would be impossible to provide without the help of the school districts.

The Plaza Comunitaria @ Richardson Public Library offers other types of courses besides the essential basic literacy, pre-GED, and GED preparation courses for the Hispanic population. The program also offers workshops and seminars during the year that cover computer, financial, health, and civic literacy. Seminars have been offered on self-esteem, domestic violence, positive thinking, and college readiness. We have taken adult learners to field trips, author lectures, and museums. One of the lectures we attended was by author Isabel Allende. It was important for the students to listen to a Hispanic writer speak in English. Even though Allende has lived in the United States for many years, she still has a Hispanic accent. The students were very pleased to hear her and understand that they do not have to speak English like their children to be understood. Many Hispanics are leery of speaking with an accent and many are reticent to speak at all, even when they know the language. Students also visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas to listen to the audio tour in English. We met later to discuss the highlights of the tour. Many students had never heard an author or visited a museum before.

Our citizenship and Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) classes are open to all nationalities. The volunteer instructor for the citizenship class is trained by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services. The volunteer instructor for the TOEFL class is a certified ESL instructor. During the summer we offer a Spanish as a Second Language “Conversaciones @ the Library” course to non-Spanish speakers.

At city hall, during the month of January, the library celebrates a formal graduation ceremony for all students who have completed elementary, intermediate, and GED educational levels during the previous year. We provide diplomas, a special guest speaker, dinner, and entertainment. The library also provides the graduation gowns. The pride and joy of our 231 graduates since 2007 is priceless. Families join the graduates in this ceremony to celebrate the hard work and sacrifices of their family members.

The coordinator is a library staff member who is also a supervisor of technical services at the library, so the job requires excellent time management skills. It is the responsibility of the coordinator to interview, register, and test all adult learners as well as recruit and train all volunteer tutors. The coordinator also models teaching techniques during the first couple of classes. The coordinator attends literacy conferences with a selected number of volunteer tutors and then meets with all tutors to discuss the highlights of the training. During the meetings with the volunteer tutors, supplementary materials and the use of websites are discussed. We established four months out of the year (April, May, October, November) for registration and placement testing of new students. Intermediate-level students are tested twice a semester, while elementary-level students are tested once per semester. Each semester is twenty weeks long, leaving two months (June and December) for volunteer tutors and the coordinator to take vacation from the program.

In 2011–12, the library went through the ProLiteracy America accreditation process. The Plaza Comunitaria @ Richardson Public Library is officially a nationally accredited volunteer-based adult literacy program. Accreditation indicates that the library follows the national standards for adult literacy. ProLiteracy America provides discounts for literacy materials, training, advocacy, and a national literacy directory for public use.

Coordinating the Plaza Comunitaria program is very hard work. It is a challenge but very rewarding. There is a tremendous need for adult literacy programs in general and the need in the Hispanic community continues to grow. With library staff and budgets shrinking, many libraries would think that this type of commitment is not possible. However, the success of the adult literacy programs at RPL indicate that they can be cost-effective and efficiently run if the library is committed to serving its community where it really needs help.

The responsibilities of public libraries have changed in the last few decades. Library users today require that lifelong education be taken seriously and that public libraries offer more than book clubs, storytimes, and computer classes. Today’s public libraries are community centers that provide access to knowledge, education, and entertainment. Public libraries are the lifeline to lifelong readers and we need to start by creating these readers.

Adult literacy changes the lives of the undereducated; makes them better citizens and workers; and allows them to be role models to their children and their community.

Public libraries are the perfect place to provide adult literacy classes because libraries have the space and resources necessary, are accessible, centrally located, have service-oriented operating hours, and have friendly and approachable staff. More importantly literacy is part of the library’s mission.


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