By Kate Adams, Grant Making Committee Member for the Fund for Santa Barbara
From Casa Magazine published December 26th, 2014.
When Dana Valverde worked with immigrant adults in Santa Maria wanting to learn English, she noticed a pattern: many of them repeated the same non-credit English courses over and over with little success. Valverde, an academic counselor at Allan Hancock College, wondered why. She knew they wanted to learn—otherwise they wouldn’t devote evenings to classes in ESL (English as a Second Language) after long days of fieldwork. Valverde discovered that educational background, not motivation, was the obstacle. Many of the college’s ESL students had not completed elementary school (primeria) or high school (secundaria), and thus they were struggling. Without the necessary academic background, Valverde wondered, “how can we expect them to succeed?”
To address the need, Dana Valverde and Aurea Dominguez created Plaza Communitaria, which they serve as Executive Director and Assistant Director. The organization offers tutoring and support to immigrant adults seeking to complete their educations in Spanish so that they can succeed in their efforts to learn English.
Literacy classes are led by volunteer instructors in the evenings and weekends.
In 2011, Valverde and Dominguez learned about Mexico’s National Institute for Adult Education (INEA) which supports literacy among Mexican immigrants by providing materials for Spanish speaking adults who want to learn. Valverde and Dominguez were determined to create a program in Santa Maria, where 70 percent of the population identifies as Latino or Hispanic, according to census data, and where 76 percent of adult non-credit ESL students report not attending high school. Of the group’s first meeting, Valverde said, “We expected fifty people to attend the weekend training, and we got 120!”
Over the past years, Plaza Comunitaria has achieved enormous success. Of the 350 enrolled students, 201 have earned primaria or secundaria education certificates. And of all 200 INEA programs in the country, Plaza Communitaria’s completion rates are second to only one other program.
Andrea Cabrera is one student who has completed the Plaza Communitaria program. While raising her daughter and working in the strawberry fields, Cabrera earned her INEA certificates and went on to earn a GED and a certificate in computer skills—all in one short year. Ms. Cabrera believes that these achievements gave her the confidence to build her life, saying, “I don’t fear the system anymore.” She now volunteers with a statewide organization called Lideres Campesinas (Farmworker Women Leaders) that educates farmworkers about workplace safety and harrassment as well as domestic violence and child abuse.
Andrea Cabrera, a graduate of Plaza Comunitaria, now volunteers her time in the community with Lideres Campesinas (Farmworker Women Leaders) empowering other women to succeed.
Assistant Director Aurea Dominguez says that experiences like Andrea’s are typical, noting that many parents bring their children to Plaza Communitaria “so they can see their parents working hard in the classroom, not just in the fields.” She adds: “Our students are more secure; their education gives them confidence.” And confidence leads to engagement in the community, “to people speaking up without violence. They use their words, their voice, not force.”
What’s next for Plaza Comunitaria? Valverde and Dominguez now receive more invitations than they can handle from school districts and other organizations. As for the students, Dominguez says, “Once you experience success, you know you can’t stop.”
In 2014, the Fund for Santa Barbara awarded a three-year grant to Plaza Comunitaria for their literacy work in Santa Maria. To learn more about Plaza Comunitaria, please contact Dana Valverde, Executive Director at 805-478-5905 / firstname.lastname@example.org or Aurea Dominguez, Assistant Director at 805-264-3160 / email@example.com.