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The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (PA)

Breaking Barriers; About 100 Hispanics Among Those Learning To Speak, Write English, Thanks To Generous Funding.


June 13, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader (PA). All rights reserved.

HAZLETON - A diversity education advocate says some area residents think the community's Hispanic population doesn't want to learn English.

But that's not true, says Northeastern Pennsylvania Diversity Education Consortium director Arthur Breese.

"They do want to learn. But it's not easy to pick up a second language, especially when you're older," Breese said.

Thanks to a consortium grant and a donation from Michael MacDowell, president of College Misericordia in Dallas Township, some Hispanic adults are trying to do just that.

MacDowell won the Luzerne Foundation's Mary Bevevino Community Service Award about a year ago and gave the $1,000 that came with it to the consortium to help the Hispanic community learn English.

The consortium matched the award and created two free adult English as a Second Language classes in Hazleton. Monsignor Michael Delaney, pastor of St. Gabriel's Church in Hazleton, and another Bevevino award-winner donated the use of the church basement twice a week for the classes.

The classes aren't just for Hispanics. Members of a refugee family from Kosovo are also students, Breese said, but most students are Hispanic.

Fifty to 60 Hispanics who knew little or no English joined a beginner's group and about 40 Hispanics with some familiarity with the language joined an advanced group in April, Breese said. Students' ages range from late 20s to 60s.

Facilitator Joyce Avila taught the more-advanced group and helped them study for a citizenship exam. Those classes ended in May after students increased their command of English.

Mercedes Cruz is teaching the entry-level students.

"They are great. They care. They're tired and hungry, but they come straight from work ... because they want to learn," said Cruz, a Hazleton resident who was born in New York and lived in Puerto Rico for more than 25 years.

A teacher for 23 years, Cruz works days as a student support specialist with the Migrant Education Program based in Lewisburg.

"I'm teaching them English survival skills. We don't emphasize as much grammar. They need to produce and speak the language and understand, to be able to communicate with everyone else," Cruz said.

On Wednesday night, Cruz spent some class time role-playing doctor visits with the students. She asked them questions such as their age, where they are suffering pain and what kind of work they do. The students had to respond in English.

Cruz said she also tries to build her students' self-esteem.

"(Their success) has to do with how they feel about themselves and being here. I want to make them feel as important as everyone else."

Ramon Moriello, 42, said he's been living in Hazleton about six months. He's taking the class because he believes learning English will help him land a job.

Through translation by Dina Castillo, a volunteer at the class, Moriello explained the class will also help him prepare for citizenship.

Moriello doesn't think non-Hispanics care much when he speaks his native tongue. But he feels he and non-Hispanics "could get along so much better" if he learned more English, he said.

Josephine Espinal, 30, said she wants to learn English so she can help her children (6 and 7) - who she says speak English better than her - with their schoolwork, and so she can find a better job.

Castillo, who moved from Bronx, N.Y., to Hazleton nine months ago to provide a safer environment for her children, said she believes some longtime residents think all Americans should learn English.

"These people are really proud because they're trying. There are very few, the ones who don't want to learn," she said.


The Northeastern Pennsylvania Education Diversity Consortium wants to continue providing adult ESL classes in the Hazleton area. Company officials interested in becoming corporate sponsors can e-mail Arthur Breese at or call him at 674-6247. Students who are interested in enrolling in future classes may also contact Breese.


Anna Polanco gets some help from Dina Castillo, an assistant volunteer teacher, at a Wednesday night adult English as a Second Language Class in the basement of St. Gabriel's Church in Hazleton.

Students work on their written language skills Wednesday. ESL classes are offered to beginners and those advanced in the English language.

Teacher Mercedes Cruz works with Ramon Moriello, 42, Wednesday during an English as a Second Language Class. Cruz, who teaches an entry-level class, says the students are eager to learn to speak and write in English.

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