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A Place for 'Becoming an American'

Long a Haven for Immigrants, Rosario Career Center Finds Its Own Safe Shelter

By Manny Fernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 7, 2004; Page DZ10

Sonia Gutierrez's school has had one mission, but many homes.

Since 1970, the Carlos Rosario International Career Center and Public Charter School has helped generations of Washington area adult immigrants learn English and rise from the depths of low-wage jobs.

Elizabeth Liburd, left, and Cybelle Cruz chop tomatoes during a cooking course at the Carlos Rosario International Career Center and Public Charter School. The school has helped area immigrants since opening in 1970. (Larry Morris - The Washington Post)

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Gutierrez, the executive director, said the school seeks to help students -- men and women from Latin America, Asia and Africa trying to find their way in a new country with a new language -- "reach that dream of becoming an American."

But Gutierrez has struggled to find a permanent site. The school rented space for years in church basements and public schools around Washington.

All of that changed for good last month.

Gutierrez joined the faculty, staff, students and supporters at the grand opening of the school's new home, a historic red-brick building at 1100 Harvard St. NW in Columbia Heights. The 84,000-square-foot structure has 30 classrooms, two technology labs with 120 computers, a 400-seat auditorium and a bookstore. Day and night, the three-story building buzzes with students -- the youngest 16, the oldest 82 -- taking English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, General Education Development (GED) courses, citizenship training and other classes.

"This building," said Gutierrez, 65, "really feels like finally we're home."

The security of a permanent home is a milestone for Carlos Rosario International, which has educated more than 50,000 immigrants in its three-decade history. The school -- a unique D.C. public charter school that serves older teenagers and adults exclusively -- is funded through the city's charter school board, receiving $5,177 annually per student. It has been honored by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model for adult education, but its most significant achievements have been in changing the lives of students, many of whom consider the teachers and staff a second family.

"An institution like Carlos Rosario is an example of where people can come in and see their dreams come true," said Moroccan-born Brahim Rawi, 41, who enrolled in the school in 1989, six months after coming to the United States.

He worked as a busboy at an Italian restaurant in Bethesda, speaking only a little English, but after two years of English and computer classes, he went on to graduate from Rosario before continuing his education elsewhere.

Now, he's a vice president at Bank of America, managing the Mount Pleasant branch. "The school," he said, "was a door opening . . . an open door for opportunities."

On Harvard Street NW, in second-floor classrooms with hardwood floors and tall windows, immigrants assemble and disassemble computers in a technology course and down the hall study the fundamentals of English. "People is or people are?" ESL teacher Hugh Beshers asked about 28 Asian and Hispanic students. The answer came back loud and confident: "People are."

Inside administrative offices, a larger-than-life picture of the late Carlos M. Rosario, a Puerto Rican-born educator and Latino political leader in the District who founded the first incarnation of the school in 1970, looks out over a white-painted lobby with flat-screen Dell computers and glass countertops.

"It's quite a remarkable event to have such a beautiful school with dignity," said Eugenio Arene, executive director of the Council of Latino Agencies, a coalition representing social service providers in the District's Hispanic community. "This is a model for education for the city, for the region and for the entire country. We all learn best in the best environment, and this is the best environment."

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