Immigrant Parents Push to Protect English Classes

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009

Each year, Fairfax County classrooms serve more than 20,000 students who are learning English as a second language. They also serve many of their parents.

More than 8,000 foreign-born adults enroll in classes annually through the county's adult and community education program. They study English grammar and are taught about getting ahead in a new country. The courses are offered in public schools, and the fee, which works out to about $2 an hour, is subsidized by the school system.

But as the School Board seeks to close a $250 million budget gap, funding for the adult English classes could be trimmed and the course fee could increase, potentially by a few hundred dollars a class. Dozens of students born in China, Nicaragua, Italy and other corners of the world attended a public hearing last month to urge the School Board to maintain the funding that keeps the classes affordable to new immigrants.

"Without English, we are separated from our children, separated from the school, separated from the society," said Efrem Ghebremedhin, an Eritrean immigrant. He said the course was an important first step in getting a good job.

Last month, Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale proposed a $2.2 billion spending plan for the 169,000-student school system. The plan is about $10 million smaller than the current year's budget and assumes enrollment will grow by about 5,000. The budget would freeze employee salaries, increase the average class size by at least a half-student and reduce many programs and services.

School Board budget Chairman Phillip A. Niedzielski-Eichner (Providence) said he fears that cuts will need to be deeper than what Dale has proposed.

The School Board will debate and adopt a spending proposal this month and present it to county supervisors, who will determine the total budget in April. Final decisions about spending will not be made until after the supervisors vote.

Parents, teachers, students, librarians and social workers were among the hundreds of people who attended last month's hearing to ask the School Board to preserve funding for their programs.

Many in the crowded auditorium held up red signs that said "NO COLA, NO STEP, NO WAY," referring to the proposed salary freeze: no cost-of-living adjustment, no step increases. One group in yellow shirts reading "School Social Workers" spoke against a proposal to increase the ratio of social workers to students. Others asked to maintain funding for librarians and new books, to preserve busing services and arts funding for a magnet elementary school, and to maintain a program that helps children with disabilities participate in physical education.

As the School Board and superintendent look for ways to improve students' education, said board member L. Kaye Kory (Mason), investing in the education of parents holds promise because the classes "strengthen the parent support system" and make it possible for children to continue learning English at home.

Rosa Tepox, a graduate of the adult English program, told the board that she enrolled so she could help her children with their homework and communicate with their teachers.

"I felt so frustrated because I couldn't help my child," she told the board. Now she feels that she can, she said.

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