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Washington Teacher Helps Immigrant Parents Learn English


Immigrant children usually integrate into American society quickly. It's not so easy for their parents, especially if they don't speak or understand English and lack the skills they need to find a job. In Washington D.C., a public school teacher is making that transition easier and has received a national award for his efforts

Dozens of parents meet several mornings a week in a classroom at Bancroft Elementary School in Washington D.C. Most are Hispanic. Some have infants or small children in tow. They make the commute in all sorts of weather, just to learn English.

"It's very hard for a person who works to come here to the school," a mother says. "I'm a driver," another parent explains. "I work from 6:00 a.m. till 9:30 a.m. then I come here to the school. When I finish the school I go back to my job again until 5 or 6 p.m."

Difficult though it may be, these parents are so motivated that they rarely miss a class. They see it as their opportunity to learn English, find a better job, have better communication and help their children with the homework. They also like their teacher. "We have a good teacher," one of the parents says. He speaks very clear, he is nice."

That 'nice' teacher is Mark Faloni. While he works with the adults, the youngsters are taught in another classroom. "Parents come with their children between the age of infancy and four and a half years old," he says. "We do early childhood activities so they'll be school ready when they get to the public school system. The parents come also at the same time. They take two types of classes. They take English as a second language classes, (and) they take computer classes to make them better prepared for the work world."

These classes are part of an Adult Learning Program funded by a non-profit group that promotes social services and family literacy in Washington D.C. Mark Faloni says the program has been effective in building immigrant parents' skills and self-esteem. It also gives them a chance to set a positive example for their children and help them succeed in school.

"We are in a school building," he says. "So, a lot of times during the class, when Moms and Dads are studying, we see their children looking in the window. They are not saying, 'My Mom doesn't know English.' It's the exact opposite. There is a pride. They tell other children, 'Look, here is my Mom. She is studying English.' So they see the importance their parents are putting in studying and learning. Then these children can't help but have the same type of passion for learning as well."

The program has expanded since it began in 1989. "First, we were knocking on doors in apartment buildings, going to clinics, to places that we thought immigrants who would like to learn and study English might be," he says. "Since we've been in the business for so long, now we are connected with many organizations and agencies that just basically refer their clients to us. So, it's so much easier now."

In recognition of his efforts teaching parents and helping them pursue new employment opportunities, Faloni received the 2006 Toyota Family Literacy Teacher of the Year award. "The significance for me is really nice," he says, " because it validates and recognizes what I've been doing for the last 16 years."

For Mr. Faloni, teaching immigrant parents has been an enriching experience. "I'm rewarded with learning about people, cultures and customs from all over the world," he says. "Each day we get in here it's not me dispensing information to them, I have the English and the understanding of the American culture that they are interested in, but they also have the wealth and richness of cultures and life experiences that I learn from every day too."

The success of this program, Mr. Faloni says, demonstrates what educators already knew: teachers can get the best results when they look for ways to reach beyond the classroom and impact their students' lives.