A Mexican-born Hyattsville mother wants to help her 8-year-old son with his homework.
A cook's helper at Georgetown Preparatory School in north Bethesda dreams of being promoted to cook and to someday become a personal chef.
A Silver Spring woman with three jobs -- housekeeper, babysitter and waitress -- needs to make more money so that she can support her elderly mother and pay for school for her two sisters in Guatemala.
Their goals are different, but the way to achieve them is the same: English classes. Four nights a week, they are among the 400 adults studying at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, where there is a list of more than 100 people ready to take the place of anybody who drops out.
Across Maryland, demand for adult literacy and English classes is far outstripping the number of classroom slots available. Nearly 900,000 people need the classes, state officials estimate, but Maryland has allotted money for only about 5 percent of them.
A state task force on the issue is proposing that Maryland spend $26.5 million over four or five years to beef up adult education programs, which are among the most poorly funded in the country. A task force report that will be released later in the fall is recommending that at least $5 million be spent the first year. Currently, $3.3 million is budgeted for adult education.
Maryland spends $77 per student on adult education; the national average is $428, according to 2003 statistics provided by the Maryland State Department of Education. That compares with $115 per student in Virginia and $496 in the District.
"Maintaining our competitiveness with a strong workforce ought to be a bipartisan issue," said Tom Perez, Montgomery County Council president and the only elected official on the 11-member task force. "There's no county that is untouched by this issue."
The panel, commissioned by State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, included Linda Burgee, the superintendent of Frederick County public schools; Fred D. Mason, president of the Maryland-D.C. chapter of the AFL-CIO; and Ed Hale Sr., chief executive of First Mariner Bank of Baltimore.
Perez (D-Silver Spring) said the report shows that immigrants want to learn English but that the classes have long waiting lists. Last year, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) made headlines when he said during a radio show that multiculturalism is "bunk" and that immigrants should make every effort to learn English.
"If he cares so much about people learning English, I'm confident that he will join us in supporting this," Perez said. "You can't on the one hand criticize people for not learning the king's English and then on the other hand refuse to fund programs."
Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Ehrlich, said that the governor supports adult education, citing bills signed last year that would add classes for up to 4,000 students.
"The governor inherited a sub-par record on adult literacy programs and is making solid effort to improve it," said Fawell, who declined to discuss Ehrlich's comments about multiculturalism.
The push for increased state funding has been prompted partly by possible cuts in federal spending for adult education. A 74 percent reduction in federal funds has been proposed, said Katharine M. Oliver, assistant state superintendent of schools, who oversees the Division of Career Technology and Adult Learning.
Oliver said that if Congress approves the cuts, services would be eliminated for nearly 18,000 Maryland students -- half the number enrolled in adult literacy and English classes.
Unlike many other states, Maryland relies heavily on federal funding, which makes up 80 percent of its adult education budget. There have been gradual increases in state funding for adult education since 2001, but those amounts have been small.
The task force is recommending that Maryland invest more and that officials reexamine programs and publish an annual state performance report to document performance and accountability.
Oliver compared the proposed initiative to the so-called Thornton plan, which legislators approved in 2002 to pump an extra $1.3 billion annually to schools. She said increasing adult education funding is crucial to the success of students in all grades.
"A child's success in school is predicated on the parents' literacy level," Oliver said. "As we look to improve our graduation rates, to close our achievement gaps, we need to have the parents in a position so they can support their children's educational pursuits."
Some business leaders say the state's economic growth depends on adult education.
Fast-growing industries such as biotechnology and health care require skilled workers. In more rural parts of Maryland, jobs in traditional industries have dried up -- for example, watermen in Southern Maryland and factory workers in Western Maryland. Many of the newly unemployed do not have high school diplomas, which would help them move into other jobs. Suburban Washington has become a major gateway for immigrants, many of whom do not speak English, although some were highly educated in their home countries.
Richard Parsons, president of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said he hears from retailers and offices that are desperate for employees with good communication skills.
"The more people you put to work in jobs available, you're going to see returns to the taxpayers," Parsons said. "Then you'll have more money to spend on other things in the future. You're generating economic activity."
Del. Sheila E. Hixson (D-Montgomery) said she is planning to reintroduce a bill that would give tax credits to companies that provide adult literacy or English classes to their employees.
Last year, the House of Delegates passed the bill without opposition, but it died in the state Senate. Senators wanted additional information on the formula used to determine the tax credits and were worried about a tight budget, Hixson said.
Hixson and other lawmakers who supported adult literacy bills said that with a projected budget surplus this year, they are hopeful that the funding for English classes could be increased.
"The governor keeps bragging that there's a surplus; we have to decide whether education in Maryland is a priority," said Del. Victor Ramirez (D-Prince George's).
At Eastern Middle School, many of the students had just finished their jobs before the 7 p.m. start of classes. CASA de Maryland, a Takoma Park-based immigrant advocacy group, operates the program, which draws residents from Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
Most of the students, who pay $100 for 14 weeks of classes, are between 20 and 35 years old and have families, organizers said. The majority are from Central American countries; some are from Haiti, Morocco, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Cameroon.
A program coordinator and a few teachers are immigrants who took English for Speakers of Other Languages classes when they arrived in the United States. Other teachers are retired Montgomery College faculty or students at the University of Maryland.
Student Janet Rubio of Hyattsville, who emigrated from Mexico last year, said she is tired after an eight-hour shift making burgers at a fast-food restaurant but is motivated by the prospect of a better job.
Her 8-year-old son, Jose, already speaks better English than she does. Rubio, 29, said she wants to understand Jose's teachers at Beacon Heights Elementary School in Riverdale and help him with his homework.
"I want to help my family," she said.
Dung Nguyen of Silver Spring, who came from Vietnam five years ago, said he wants to be able to do things without having to rely on his 12-year-old son as a translator. On the first day of ESOL class, he took along his son, a seventh-grader at Eastern Middle School, to help him register.
"Before I come to school, I don't know anything," said Nguyen, who works in an auto parts store. "Now, I can talk English a little."