Fifteen Waxahachie ISD employees carved time out of their busy lives to learn the English language. After months of hard work, the students were treated with a Christmas fiesta on Wednesday.

Christy Olivera is the English as a second language teacher at Finley Junior High and also acts as the campus site partnership officer. She is also the individual who dreamed up the idea of a daytime ESL course. For the past 15 years, Olivera has taught ESL to students within Waxahachie ISD, as well as to adults at Navarro College.

“Language learning is my passion, and when you’re teaching a class you get to know the custodians in your hall,” Olivera said. “I always like to talk to them because I know they don’t always get to practice speaking English.”

Olivera would even open her classroom during her conference period to non-English speakers for mini-lessons because she knew “For many of them it’s a roadblock to opportunities.”

Olivera presented the idea to Viana Armstrong, the bilingual and ESL coordinator for WISD, and from there it became a joint effort.

The first step was to assess the interest of district employees; since six people had to be enrolled to establish the class. A survey was then completed by nearly 30 people, and the response was “overwhelming.” Once word of the course was released, the employees were eager to begin.

Thanks to a grant from the Texas Workforce Commission, the 10-month course was free. A partnership with Navarro was also established, which allowed its professors to instruct the classes.

Xochitl Vasquez, a Navarro ESL instructor, was selected to teach. She already had a relationship with the district since she was once a dual-language teacher for WISD. She even taught some of her students’ children.

One of the adult students, Sara Gutierrez, has dedicated 11 years to WISD as a custodian, and currently works at Turner Elementary. Armstrong helped translate what Gutierrez said to be able to share her story and the impact the class has made in her life.

Twelve years ago, Gutierrez and her family moved to Texas from Guadalajara, Jalisco to provide better opportunities to her four children. The WISD education proved to be beneficial to her family, as one of her twin boys graduated as the 2018 valedictorian. Both 19-year-olds are currently enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to study medicine and business.

“She was a nurse in Mexico, and so when she arrived she thought, ‘Should I try to pursue my education here so I can become a nurse as well?’ But she had to feed her family, so it was very important for her to start working and look at how far her children have come,” Armstrong translated.

Gutierrez sat in the front row of class and expressed, “Oh yes, I like it very much.” Besides earning an education, her classmates and teachers are what make the experience pleasant. Before the class, Gutierrez could understand most spoken and written English but had a hard time with an elaborate response.

Armstrong helped translate and said, “She does understand quite a bit and of course being at Turner, most of the teachers speak English; there are only a few that speak Spanish. In her home, it’s also all Spanish, so it’s been great for her to practice her English.”

Three months into the program, Gutierrez feels more confident with her verbal communication and can now have more extensive conversations in English.

“It was very important to her because she had already tried other English classes at different times, but she said this was so important because she already knows us and knew Ms. Vasquez and so that has developed a sense of family within the class,” Armstrong interpreted.

Gutierrez pointed out that the class has been so helpful because Vasquez utilizes the native language to teach English. She then gave credit to knowing Olivera and Armstrong as well and felt comfortable with the classroom environment at Finley.

She does have a dream to become a nurse in Texas. “It’s never too late,” Gutierrez said with a smile.

Olivera explained the course began in October and the students are educated mainly on workplace literacy. The critical component to accelerate the education is to practice speaking the language as much as possible since it’s the most common medium the students interact with English speakers at work.

“If you’re in a good language learning class, it’s not going to be quiet because it’s going to be interactive and busy,” Olivera explained. “It’s loud because everyone should be talking.”

Vasquez admitted she had to switch up her techniques instead of teaching precisely by the book, which was all English. “Then, I realized with an adult, you have to try and stick to that but add some flexibility too,” Vasquez explained.

The majority of the instruction is in English, but when critical information is delivered, Vasquez will utilize both languages. She explained the importance is to not frustrate the adult because, with a child, they will come to school the next day, whereas the adult has the choice.

“We have the same number that we started with,” Vasquez boasted. “By now they are family. It is such a good group, and they really want to learn.”

Vasquez expressed the importance of being bilingual and wished all American students were required to be fluent in more than one language. She added that she is currently learning Korean.

“I think we should never stop learning," Vasquez emphasized. "Bi-literacy and being bilingual is just huge, and they see the value."

The students meet twice a week for three hours a day and every 60 hours they are tested for progress. Olivera explained the goal is for them to get them to exit-level and then funnel into other programs with Navarro to continue their education.

Armstrong expressed the support from the district to initiate and grow the program has been extremely positive. A second class will begin in January for adults and spots are still available.

“Who knows what it will look like in a year or two,” Armstrong said.

For more information on the free citizenship, ESL and GED classes, call 903-875-7464 or visit www.navarrocollege.edu/AE.

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Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450