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.
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."
The school first occupied an old building on Irving Street NW in the early 1970s. The students squeezed into a few upstairs rooms, often shivering without heat through the winters and watching the roaches head for cover when someone flicked on the lights. In 1978 the school moved to a building in Georgetown, at 35th and T streets NW. It was the school's headquarters until budget cuts forced D.C. school officials to close it abruptly in 1996. "I thought that was our building," Gutierrez said.
But Gutierrez -- who was raised in Puerto Rico and came to the United States in 1968 -- was determined. She recruited former teachers and reopened the center as a private nonprofit school in 1997 at Calvary Baptist Church in Chinatown.
For seven years, the Rosario school was scattered throughout various churches, public schools and other buildings. Some years, classes were held at one church during the day and at another church at night.
It was a rootless feeling. "The teachers were in borrowed space -- they couldn't put up anything on the walls," said Ana Maria Nuevo, 29, who has worked at the school for 10 years as a volunteer, instructor and administrator. "It was a challenge."
The school's new Harvard Street NW location has a long history among D.C. educators. The building opened in 1913 and housed the old Wilson Teachers College. It then became part of the D.C. Teachers College, which focused on producing teachers for city public schools and was one of the three institutions that merged to form the University of the District of Columbia.
By the time the Rosario school leased the building in 2001, it was an abandoned shell with broken windows. So the school embarked on an $18 million renovation, raising money through grants from local foundations, tax-exempt bonds underwritten by the Bank of America and financial contributions from the faculty and staff.
Gutierrez said the move-in gives her a "feeling of great accomplishment, a feeling of happiness knowing that our dream came true and a feeling that now we can really begin again." She is more than the executive director; since she joined the school in 1972, Gutierrez has come to embody the spirit of the place, inspiring students and staff with her you-can-do-it message.
"All they need is a little push and they fly," she once said of the 1,200 immigrants from more than 50 countries who study at the school.
Those students often work two or three jobs as janitors and cooks and enroll in ESL classes at night. Some are grandparents in their 70s learning English for the first time. Graduates can be found throughout the Washington area in a variety of fields. One opened his own construction company.
Gustavo F. Velasquez, director of the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs, said the school has helped smooth the process of assimilation for the Washington area's growing immigrant population, evolving over the years into a "one-stop shop" providing job skills, literacy training and something more. "You're going to need also the emotional support, the encouragement, the empowerment," Velasquez said.
Inside a kitchen on the lower level one morning last week, 15 students in white coats and tall, white chef hats hustled to make 300 quesadillas for lunch (culinary arts students get hands-on experience by cooking the food served in the cafeteria). Instructor Benjamin Velasquez, 42, who is originally from San Salvador and who learned English at Rosario, looked at his roster and counted off the nations represented in his kitchen: El Salvador, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Ethiopia, Sudan, Peru. The list went on.
"It's like the United Nations," said Allison Kokkoros, managing director of the school's Career Center.
Indeed, the school is as linguistically and ethnically diverse as the Washington area. Students speak more than 25 different languages, and an administrator said it is not uncommon for an instructor to have 15 students from 15 different countries.
Elizabeth Liburd, 28, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic speaking only a little English, helped prepare the quesadillas in the kitchen. After a year of courses at Rosario, her English improved, and now she dreams of one day owning her own restaurant. "They were able to show me that I could have a future if I want to," she said of the school. "It's not just classes. They help you with every problem."
For Liburd, that included getting help with health insurance coverage.
Gutierrez said she believes that successful adult education should extend far beyond the classroom and address the social needs of students. The school has developed a support services office at the Harvard Street site that offers students free tax preparation, counseling, career development and other nonacademic assistance.
"We don't just deal with you as a student . . . but also we look at you as a human being," Gutierrez said.