Waiting List for English Classes Is Long; Indicator of Intent to Stay

By CHRIS BURRELL

They are, said Jeanne Burke, the people who sustain the Island, the ones who ring up the groceries, paint the houses and tend the gardens.

They are also the ones knocking on Ms. Burke's door in staggering numbers, looking for a place in one of the six English classes taught through the Martha's Vineyard Adult Learning Partnership, where Ms. Burke is the director.

Earlier this month, when English as a second language (ESL) classes started for another academic year, the staff found themselves swamped with registrants, nearly all of them Brazilians.

The waiting list for the ESL classes now tops 200 - a clear indicator of the growth of the Brazilian population on the Vineyard and a sign that these new immigrants intend to stay. Just over 100 are currently enrolled.

"They are living and participating in our community," said Ms. Burke. "They need to talk to their kids' teachers, go to the hospital. They have to communicate to get their needs met, and it's scary for them."

This year's waiting list is the largest ever seen at the state-funded adult education program, which started back in 1997. In past years, the waiting lists for the ESL classes have grown steadily. Last year, there were 120, and the year before that 75, hoping for a seat in one of the classes.

Some people have been waiting three years for a place. Ms. Burke and her staff relied on a simple lottery system for admission. The 55 students who returned from last year were guaranteed a place.

"There are more here than ever expected. One woman pleaded with us to let her in. People are still coming in," she said.

Far from feeling overwhelmed by the surge in interest, Ms. Burke is all the more adamant about meeting the demand, about lobbying for funds to hire more teachers.

"They have a right to education like everyone else," said Ms. Burke. "They are not a burden."

The program, which is offered free of charge to all participants, survives on an annual budget of $164,000, all but $500 of it coming from the state Department of Education. After state budget cuts last year, they lost $4,000 in funding.

Students are not required to show any proof of their immigration status. "The state asks for a Social Security number if they have one," said Ms. Burke. "But it's nobody's business in my point of view."

The adult learning program also offers a class to help students earn their GED, the high school general equivalency diploma. This fall's class of about 24 students is roughly half Brazilian.

The rest of the program is devoted solely to the ESL program, which is offered five hours a week during two nightly sessions at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. The only Portuguese you will hear is during the mid-class breaks in the hallways. All classes are taught in English.

The area of highest need is at the beginning levels. There are four classes at that level plus one intermediate and one advanced course.

On the surface, the interest is fueled by economic necessity. For the Brazilians and the handful of immigrants from the Czech Republic, Vietnam, Uruguay and Argentina enrolled in the ESL classes, acquiring English skills translates to better jobs and higher earning power.

Florisvado De Jesus, 46, left Brazil a year ago and came to the Vineyard, where his brother in law helped him find a job at the bagel bakery in Vineyard Haven.

Speaking through Vera Cacique, an interpreter who works for the adult learning program, Mr. De Jesus said he came to America for a better life and more money, but he can't always understand what his boss is asking him to do on the job.

"We base the class on what the students' needs are," said Ms. Burke. At the beginning levels, the first lesson covers the basics. "We start with the alphabet so they can spell their names properly," she said.

But the program also takes on an advocacy role for the Brazilians and other immigrants. In-house counselor Wendy Andrews works with Ms. Cacique to help students deal with any number of issues, typically health care and housing problems.

Once a month, at least some chunk of the classroom time is given over to guest speakers who offer ESL students real-world tips on such topics as immigration law, Lyme disease and the resources available at public libraries.

There's even a hands-on lesson in democracy. Two representatives from each classroom are elected to a student council that meets four times a year to discuss and lobby for changes on topics such as improving teaching and helping with fundraising. They have also produced two issues of their own newspaper.

There is no shortage of enthusiasm among either teachers or students. Ann Hollister is a retired elementary school teacher who said that leading one of the beginning classes is like an energy jolt.

"It's really a boost. These people are here because they want to learn, and they are into it," she said.

In the advanced class last Wednesday, teacher Gail Tipton was guiding her classroom of 10 students through some newspaper articles. In this room, the English skills were strong enough for lots of banter and joking, possibly explaining why these classes are so popular.

Students didn't hesitate to tell their teacher when they already knew something. When idioms were written on the board, one of them said, "get the picture."

Jakeline Oliveira, 36, quickly said, "Yep, we get the picture." But other idioms such as "hit the spot" and "go to bat for" needed some explaining.

"Is that the same as ‘bent over backward?' " asked Ms. Oliveira.

"And why a bat?" asked Wessel Menezes, 34, who seemed to be smiling during the entire class. Ms. Tipton explained it was a sports metaphor, a baseball bat, not the flying bat.

For the advanced students, the idioms represent a dividing line. Their English is good, their humor has the right timing, but they are still trying to find a comfort zone in the English language. It means the difference between fitting in or remaining on the outside looking in.

Alexandra Miranda, a housecleaner and the mother of a one-year-old daughter, said she feels angry and sad sometimes about the language barrier. "Sometimes people talk to me, and I understand but I can't answer," she said.

"They think we are stupid," said Ms. Oliveira.

English isn't just a bridge to better jobs but to the Island community.

"I want to make good money for my work, but that's not enough. We also like to know what's happening, to be a part of the society," said Reinaldo Almeida, a landscaper who is 25.

"The point is also to socialize, to talk and meet other people," said Vani Bessoni, a 29-year-old who works at a restaurant.

"If you can talk, you can explain things, even talk about Brazil. They think we are aborigines," said Mr. Menezes, who works for a window cleaning company in the summer and an insulating firm in the winter months.

"Yes, they think it's a jungle," added Ms. Bessoni.

The students in Ms. Tipton's class were also keenly aware of other stereotypes. "American people are sick to see a lot of immigrants here. They think, ‘They're taking my job, and I can't buy a house,' " said Ms. Bessoni.

"Most people think we just send money back to Brazil," said Mr. Menezes. "But we spend so much money in America, too."

The ESL classes could help break down cultural barriers and preconceptions. Steve Bernier, owner of Cronig's Markets, has hired an instructor to teach English to Brazilian employees, who constitute half his payroll.

"They have gone from being casual visitors in our workforce to becoming permanent," he said.

That's pretty much the point Ms. Burke makes. The Brazilian population is putting down roots on the Vineyard. "The benefits of adult education are lower crime rates, better parenting and more children staying in school," she said. "Those are all things that contribute to the community. They don't take away from it in any way."