Teachers, agency leaders say a diversified community must learn to live together


— It's Monday night in the basement at the Center of Craig, and Sandra Duarte is teaching a group of students the alphabet.

"How do you feel about homework?" she asks the students.

"Very good," the eager students respond.

"You need to practice your alphabet at home," she tells them. "I think it is important for you to go home and practice what you do in class and write in a notebook."

The night's lesson includes letters of the alphabet, the word "the" and the days of the week.

The lesson covers topics that people raised in the United States learn in kindergarten and first grade.

But Duarte isn't teaching children she's teaching five adults whose primary language is Spanish.

All of the students want to learn the predominantly spoken language in the community in which they now live.

"I'm going to tell you a word and you tell me if it begins with the letter 'B' or 'V'," Duarte says. "It makes a big difference."

She asks one student what day of the week it is.

"Monday," the student responds.

"In this class you have to answer in a complete sentence," Duarte says.

The student takes a moment to gather her thoughts, then slowly responds, "Today is Monday."

Carla Counts is one of the five students currently registered in Duarte's English class, which meets at 7 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays.

Counts moved to the United States four years ago from Mexico City. She said she is determined to learn English.

"It will offer me more opportunity for integration into the community and will give me a better opportunity to get jobs," she said.

She said after four years of listening to people talk, she knows and understands some English but wants to learn to read and write it.

She wants to improve her skills because she was trained as a paramedic in Mexico and wants to use her training here.

But right now she is not confident enough in her English skills, she said.

"I feel afraid and insecure that people who need help might try to tell me something and I won't understand," she said.

Catalina Deras said she is in the class to improve upon the English skills she has already acquired.

"I can understand and speak most everything," she said. "But I want to learn more English and want to be able to communicate better."

She wants to be able to communicate better with her children, who have learned English in school.

"Sometimes I say to them, 'Tell me in English,' because I want to learn," Deras said.

Deras said every Spanish speaker in the community should share her goal of learning English. If they do, their lives will be better, she said.

"All Spanish speakers need to learn English because in stores and everywhere I need it," she said. "Sometimes people don't respect me and see me as nothing because I don't speak English."

While Counts agrees it is important to learn English, she said she wished more information distributed in the community was in Spanish to help those just getting started.

"I don't know how to read English," Counts said. "I wish the newspaper would have some things in Spanish. If my neighbor would not have told me about this class, I would have had no idea."

Counts refuted the idea that some Spanish speakers have no desire to learn English.

"There's nobody that's not interested in learning," she said. "But sometimes people don't have the time, don't know where to go and don't have the money to pay for teachers."

Learning a new language is a challenge, she said, but she's confident she'll soon be fluent.

"It's a little difficult," she said. "But when you really want something, it's not as difficult."

Duarte is an aide at Moffat County High School and has taught English as a Second Language classes off and on for more than 10 years in the community.

Duarte said she took some Spanish when she was in school, but really learned Spanish when she married her husband, who is Hispanic.

While Duarte's classes are about the only resources local adults have to learn English, she said it is frustrating because her class is not always offered.

"Funding is a big problem with carrying on with these classes," she said. "We have a terrible time finding funding."

Because the Spanish-speaking population continues to grow at a rapid rate in Moffat County, Duarte said she might begin to try and generate some local support.

"Because there is a need for bilingual employees in the community, I think people might be willing to donate money to the classes," she said.

Right now students are charged $30 for the class, plus $5 for a Spanish-English dictionary.

Funding is needed for more teachers and more classes, she said.

"When I have 30 students, the more advanced students have to wait and they get bored," she said. "That's why we need more teachers and volunteers. But we don't have enough funding for another teacher."

Although Duarte can speak Spanish, she said she tries to use it as infrequently as possible while teaching the class.

The key to learning another language, she said, is listening and using it.

"I try not to speak much Spanish in the beginning but by the end of the class, it's all English," she said. "What I keep saying is it's just like a little child. First you listen, then you speak and then the reading and writing comes."

Duarte has other ideas she would like to implement to try and bring together members of the English-speaking community and Spanish-speaking community in Craig.

She wants to start a program called "double talk," in which English and Spanish speakers are paired.

The idea is simple, she said.

"They would get together for one or two hours each week and teach each other the language," she said.

"If you don't converse, you're not going to learn it," she said. "You have to practice it. That's why I think double talk will come in handy."

Duarte also disagreed with the idea that some Spanish speakers don't want to learn English.

If they don't learn English, it's definitely not due to laziness, she said.

"I totally disagree," she said. "There's not very many opportunities in Mexico. They're here because they are not lazy. They want a better opportunity."

The problem is, she said, opportunities to learn are scarce.

"One girl asked me how she could learn interview skills," she said. "They want to learn but they don't have an opportunity to."

Duarte said she would like to see more resources in the community because she does believe it's important that Spanish speakers learn the English language.

"I do think they need to learn English," she said. "Just to go into the store and be able to ask for something and not have to rely on their kids. Sometimes when I'm interpreting I don't understand, let alone having to rely on kids."

While there is a need for more ESL classes in the community, Duarte did not think it was necessary to have Spanish documents and pamphlets circulating through the community.

"I don't think we need to start printing things in Spanish," she said. "The goal is to learn English. If we do that they have no reason to learn English."

As Spanish-speaking people continue to move to Craig, more resources need to be made available to make them feel welcome, she said.

"We definitely need more resources," she said. "At the high school I got a welcome tape together. It's a video that basically explains what a pass is and where the nurse's office is. We put together an entire welcome packet for new students. I think that's something we could do in the community."

Duarte said more Spanish-speaking people are moving to Craig than she ever expected would.

"I'm surprised to see as many Hispanics as there are," she said. "But really I see it's a growing trend everywhere. As a community we need to be ready and include them in our society."

An integrated, well-adjusted community will require effort from both the Spanish- and English-speaking populations, she said.

"The more we help each other and learn each other's language, culture and lifestyles, the better it will be for everybody," she said.

As immigrants continue to move to Craig, several local officials said agencies must continue to be sensitive to not only language differences but also cultural differences.

Moffat County School District Superintendent Pete Bergmann, who heads a district that has already had to make significant changes to meet the needs of students who don't speak English, said the district will have to continue to make adjustments in the future if the population continues to grow.

"I think we have to be flexible in our approach and continually look at the population and our existing model," Bergmann said. "We need to keep changing the model to meet the need of our students. We cannot become stagnant."

The district cannot become stagnant in dealing with language barriers, or cultural barriers, he said.

"That becomes one of our goals with diversity," he said. "We have to learn to grow, accepting the diversity and other cultures."

Like the rest of the country, which now boasts a Hispanic population of about 13 percent, Moffat County is changing, he said.

"Our world is shrinking so to speak," he said. "As a school system, we need to recognize that diversity and need to learn to respect cultures and diversity in our shrinking world. Besides teaching reading and writing, we need to teach each other's cultures to coexist. That's always a challenge."

Bergmann made reference to one local teacher, who has said she does not view teaching Spanish-speaking students as a challenge, but instead as a learning opportunity for both she and the student.

"That is the tone we need to set in our schools," he said. "We have things to learn from each other. It makes us a richer society."

Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta described the police department right now as being "marginally adequate" in being able to deal with the Spanish-speaking population.

While he said it would be nice to have more bilingual officers, right now it is not feasible.

"Getting quality candidates is a challenge, period, let alone finding someone who speaks another language," he said. "It's an ongoing issue for us. Unfortunately we don't have a large enough pool of local applicants to choose from."

Officers recently went through a bias training class, he said, which he hopes will help to make them more culturally sensitive.

He gave an example of a situation that officers have already had to face in which cultural sensitivity is important in understanding a situation.

"In some Spanish-speaking cultures it is inappropriate for the woman to speak," he said. "We're not used to that."

There have been cases in which officers reported to a call, tried to question the woman in the family, and she wouldn't talk.

An officer's initial thought might be that she has something to hide, he said, but in that particular family the belief might be that the man is supposed to speak for the family.

"It's part of their culture," he said. "It's not that they're trying to hide something."

Craig as a community needs to adapt and understand different cultures, he said.

"We have a diverse community but some sectors need to become more tolerant of people moving into the community," he said. "People need to realize that Craig is no longer an isolated community. It has become part of the global economy and things are going to continue along that front."

Marie Peer, director of the Moffat County Social Services Department, said many situations that are frustrating for those in the social services arise when Spanish speakers come in.

Peer said she has seen an increase in the number of Spanish speakers in the office in just the past four months.

"We went from one a month to one a week," she said.

One frustrating situation that arises, she said, is when the office cannot legally serve those that come in.

"Unless they are documented aliens they are not eligible for many programs," she said. "We work really hard to think of other resources that might help them out like the food bank or Salvation Army."

The receptionists, who all speak English, also must deal with trying to communicate and understand the needs of those that come in, Peer said.

"Another frustrating thing is some speak only Spanish," she said. "The receptionists work really hard at communicating, but every now and then they can get no place and a person has to come back with an interpreter. That's really frustrating and sad when you can't understand what that person needs."

A bilingual employee would be nice, she said, but the reality is there aren't any available.

"It would be nice to have one but with the shortage I don't know if we could get one," she said.

Bilingual employees, computer programs or voice-activated software are all options the department might have to explore in the future, she said.

"It's something down the road we might have to look at," she said.

Right now a receptionist in the office is thinking about taking Spanish classes, she said, and the department is also going to contact the state and see if different applications that clients must fill out in the social services office are available in Spanish.

"We need to be able to serve people," she said. "Anybody that comes in and applies we need to be able to process their application."

It is also important that social service employees also are sensitive to cultural differences.

"We need to understand and respect other cultures in order to properly serve people," she said. "Our mission says that we value people, but we can't value people unless we understand what their values are."

Susie Clark works for the Colorado West Regional Mental Health Center, which has offices in Craig and Steamboat Springs.

She is the project coordinator for the Social Emotional Early Development (SEED) program.

The center was recently awarded a $150,000 grant over three years from the Colorado Trust.

The grant came as part of the Supporting Immigrant and Refugee Families Initiative (SIRFI), which was developed to provide assistance in helping immigrant families face the barriers they are confronted with when they move to the country.

According to SIRFI, these challenges include language, health care, employment, cultural differences, mental health, education, housing, racism and legal issues.

"We were surprised we got it," Clark said. "Although we don't have the numbers many places have, my gosh are we seeing an increase."

The money has already been used to hire a bilingual professional that splits her duties between the mental health offices in Craig and Steamboat Springs.

The goal of SIRFI, Clark said, is to "strengthen all organizations and agencies that serve immigrants and refugees."

"We're really trying to target young children and families," she said. "We want to strengthen organizations and enable them to be more culturally competent in the way we serve this population."

Education is the key, Clark said.

"One of the ways to do this is to be very aware of our own beliefs and philosophies," she said. "Self awareness is the first step in being more culturally competent."

Having a bilingual person at Craig Mental Health is a good start, Clark said.

"Many of these people struggle with adjustment issues," she said. "There are a lot of obstacles to feeling like you are a member of the community. I'm hoping Craig Mental Health can offer some support to those cultural challenges."

Gina Golden, clinical projects coordinator at Craig Mental Health, said seven years ago the office had no Spanish-speaking clients, but as word gets out that help is available more are starting to come.

Because of this, Craig Mental Health has had to make adjustments, she said.

"We have integrated culture into treatment rather than trying to fit them into our Anglo mold," she said.

Cultural sensitivity is especially important in the area of mental health, Golden said.

"Moving to a new country creates a lot of stress," she said. "The people are having to come into a new culture and adjust to a whole new belief system."

The new bilingual employee, Cecilia Lee, has helped the office better serve the changing community, she said.

"Having someone like Cecilia is extremely beneficial," she said. "Right now she is teaching us conversational Spanish. We want to at least be able to figure out what people need when they come in the door."

It's going to take an effort on behalf of everyone in the community to properly adjust to the growing Spanish-speaking population, she said.

"People who are bilingual need to be willing to get out and help, and professionals in the community need to try and learn some Spanish," she said. "We have a need for more bilingual professionals."

Cecilia Lee, who was recently hired by the regional mental health center, said she understands what those who first move to Craig from another country are going through.

"I was one of those children that started school and didn't know English," she said. "I don't want people to go through what I went through. It was very difficult and heartbreaking."

Lee said she had one parent who was Hispanic and one who was Anglo.

"I was a blonde-haired, browned-eyed little girl who spoke Spanish," she said. "I grew up in a very strange world."

Just a little effort on behalf of the English-speaking community to help those who move here feel accepted could go a long way, she said.

"Do you know how great it makes people feel when you can speak to them in their own language?" she asked. "It immediately makes a bridge over this big old river that we have."

While those who move to the United States have to adjust to a new way of life, she said she hopes they don't forget who they are.

"I've tried to change myself but now I'm just me," she said. "I try to tell people we can't forget who we are."

Almost all of those people who move to the United States come for better opportunities, she said, and those children in school who are trying to learn English might be the next generation's leaders.

"We live in a country where there is so much opportunity to better ourselves," she said. "We can never tell, but one of these little Mexican kids might be our next president."


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