Immigrant parents, off to class with their kids

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At first, Tomasa Galeana got strange looks from her classmates at Thomas Edison Elementary School.

Her legs were too long for the short, squat classroom chairs. She didn't play kickball during recess. She wore makeup and carried a purse.

These days, though, the 39-year-old student is fitting in just fine, reading the same books and taking the same tests as her 10- and 11-year-old classmates.

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Ms. Galeana has been attending class with her fourth-grade son as part of a pilot program aimed at helping newly arrived immigrants learn English and adjust to American schools and culture.

"A lot of people are probably afraid to go to school so late in their life," Galeana says. "But I want to learn. I want to learn so I can get a job. I want to learn so I can help my son. I want to learn so I can become a citizen."

Across the United States, there has been a boom in the number of school programs that enable parents and children to overcome language barriers.

"I think what you're seeing ... is a need on two levels: children who are already citizens but whose parents don't speak English, and a huge immigrant population where nobody speaks English," says Charles Amorosino Jr., executive director of the nonprofit Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages Inc.

In Texas, state law requires schools to provide bilingual education to parents. Similar programs exist in Florida, New Mexico, Washington, and other states.

But in California, voters did away with bilingual education three years ago. As a result, children have been placed in English-immersion programs to learn such subjects as history and science.

The California Department of Education estimates that about 1.5 million K-12 children are learning English, and about 200,000 of them have been in the country for less than three years.

A number of school districts in California offer family-literacy programs. Some require parents to attend after-school classes with their children. Others offer separate teaching for parents.

The Anaheim effort, dubbed "The English Academy" and started in January, goes one step further by encouraging parents to attend class with their children. School officials hope it will become a model for campuses across the state.

"It gives children an opportunity to feel comfortable in school, and it gives parents an opportunity to see what school is all about," says Connie Scheid, the district's director of special programs.

Parent participation is expected to improve children's learning at home. The idea grew out of school administrators' desire to support students who speak little or no English.

"These were the students who were quiet in the classroom, the ones who were really struggling," says vice principal Norma Martinez.

Parents attend the academy as their work schedule allows. As many as seven have been in the classroom on any given day, along with 20 children, mostly fourth- and fifth-graders.

"The kids of parents who attend make the fastest progress," says Rhonda Oglevie, who has been teaching the academy since it began.

Children typically selected for Ms. Oglevie's class have been in the country for a year or less. The goal is to teach them enough English to place them in regular classrooms within 18 months.

"I would like to be able to help my daughters," Concepcion Arcos says in Spanish through a translator.

Sitting at a small desk, Ms. Arcos balances her 7-month-old daughter on her knee as she works on a word-search puzzle. Her older daughter is working on the same puzzle next to her. First Arcos circles the word April, and then pronounces and spells it out loud. Finally, she writes it in a notebook.

Galeana never finished school in her native Mexico. She quit to help raise her brothers and sisters and later to care for her own family. She wants to help her son Mario to learn "so he can have a better life than me," she says.

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