Strike against literacy

Julieta Flores knew enough to dial 911 to report the domestic abuse when the shouts and taunts turned physical. But she couldn’t communicate with the officer when he arrived at her house a short time later. The man with the badge didn’t speak Spanish; she spoke no English.

“When I explained to the officers, they don’t understand what happened to me,” Flores said. “I said, ‘Please help me.’ And they said, ‘Oh. We don’t understand.’”

Her emergency was handled in broken phrases and gestures, with the cop finally explaining (she believed) that since he could see no marks on her skin, he was not going to take any action. That’s when Flores made up her mind to learn English.

Last Saturday, I found Flores studying with an advanced ESL class at the Ferrari Community Resource and Learning Center just south of North Star Mall. The parking lot was nearly full and about 30 adult students crowded the main meeting room. When I asked the group about City plans to close all 7 community centers on Saturdays under City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s proposed 2011 budget, the room grew agitated. “The English is too important,” Flores said from the back of the room. “San Antonio’s grown up; we want to grow up too.”

Fellow student Cecilia Gomez, a native of Mexico City, works during the week, but still tries to fit in a class or two when she can. But Saturdays are her sure thing. “In the beginning, I think `education is` for my children. But now it’s for myself,” Gomez said. While her children were in elementary school, it seemed there were many teachers that spoke Spanish. She found high school to be a different story. “Few people speak Spanish. A lot understand, but they can’t tell me in Spanish.”

Between the advanced ESL class and two beginners groups, there are more than 50 Saturday students attending Ferrari. When I asked the advanced group how many of them can only attend on Saturday about three quarters of the hands shot up. Sunday classes were already cut by the City in a similar downsizing a couple years ago, the students said.

Yet Teresa Vasquez-Romero, special projects manager at the City’s Department of Community Initiatives, said while the City Manager’s office asked the department to cut expenses, they’re hoping not to lose students. “On Saturdays there really isn’t much of the educational activities out there. The focus hasn’t been on Saturday,” she said.

Under Sculley’s proposed budget, Community Initiatives would cut seven staff positions and reduce operations at its seven centers from 72 hours per week to 45 hours per week for an estimated $380,000 in savings. To try to accommodate students like Gomez and Flores, the centers would open late on Tuesdays and Thursday and remain open until 9 pm, Vasquez-Romero said. “All we’re really wanting to do is align our hours of operation with the education classes where there’s most attendance,” she said.

But two members of the San Antonio Council on Literacy see the proposal as evidence of a continued rollback on social services in favor of infrastructure projects and more capital-intensive forms of economic development. The City’s shrinking commitment to reducing Bexar County’s staggering 25-percent illiteracy rate seems more geared toward maintaining a permanent underclass. “There’s not investment in those who don’t vote, and there’s very small investment in the poor,” said Celina Peña, director of the South Texas Women’s Center at ACCÍON Texas, a micro-lending group, who also serves with the Commission on Literacy. “Creating a quality of life is not only through building sidewalks and streets, it’s about investing in human capital,” Peña said. “Could it be done more efficiently? I’m sure. But at the same time there is no other outlet for a safe space for people to learn this way.”

So far, only Councilmember Jennifer Ramos has been willing to publicly suggest that perhaps property taxes should be increased to maintain the City’s current social-services commitment. As it stands now, only an estimated 5 percent of those who need assistance such as ESL are being reached, said Peña. That number can only fall with the cuts.

Said volunteer ESL teacher Bill Rodriquez: “If they don’t get `help`, it’s going to take longer for them to become part of the community. I’m not saying they’ll be a burden on their community, but it’s going to be a lot harder for them to belong to the area.”

Yet, room in Community Initiatives has been found for Mayor Julián Castro’s request for the opening of a new center focused on assisting young people connect with college opportunities, Vasquez-Romero said.

While she praised Castro for making education a priority, Peña said the City is still drifting from policies that consider investment in people a key economic issue. “Our policy makers have to pause and think: Where do we want to position ourselves as it relates to human capital?” she said. “These small investments go such a long way. You can see it when you have multiple generations reading together.”

Reached Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Castro said he expects a lot of discussion about the community centers in the days ahead and that he would like to keep them open “as many hours as possible.” •

Council members were holding a work session on the City’s community development budget Tuesday as this issue was being shipped to the printer. Another work session on funding for the arts, convention and sports facilities, aviation, and our health department is being held today at the City Hall Complex, 114 W. Commerce. The Council is expected to adopt a final budget on September 16.

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