Expanding Puente’s English Language learning programs

For English teachers, teaching students the conditional tense – that is, how to express a hypothetical situation – can be a challenge. Puente’s staff members are grappling with their own hypothetical situation: “If immigration reform passes, how can we be ready for a lot of new English students?”


Learning Center Associate, Kassi Talbot, along with three Bachillerato students who started their on-line program (equivalent to High School).

The most powerful Congressional backers of an immigration reform bill have made it clear that anyone who might apply for a provisional residency permit, let alone a green card, would have to demonstrate a certain level of English language proficiency under the law.

But the level of proficiency required – whether an applicant would need to read, write and speak well enough to pass a test, or simply be enrolled in English classes – is still a matter of debate at the Congressional level.

Either way, Puente’s English Language programs – the only source of ESL classes anywhere between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz – would see a surge of interest.  “All of these people are going to realize, ‘Oh my god, I need English to get on my pathway to citizenship.’ It’s a completely different motivation to learn English,” says Kassi Talbot, Puente’s Learning Center Associate in charge of the ESL program.


Puente program director, Rita Mancera, congratulates two ESL graduates.

Attendance at Puente’s Level 1 and Level 2 English classes already has grown since instructors shifted their teaching style to a comprehension-based approach, as opposed to the grammar-based style of learning favored by more traditional ESL schools. Students learn in Spanish and English, so they aren’t shy to speak in class.

That said, Talbot has a feeling that a proposed immigration bill would favor a more traditional approach, which Puente found far less effective with its population.

Puente has been discussing how to combine the two methods in the classroom in order to help students meet citizenship requirements.

Puente is part of an adult English language cohort, led by Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), which brings together peer organizations to strategize on the best ways to provide support to immigrant communities. Capacity and funding could also be an issue, says Talbot.

“I’ve heard there would be federal funding, but the way it trickles down it will not reach us in time. So we’re going to need to firm up a way to cope.”

Puente’s approach to education has the support of the community foundation, which has helped fund English language programs in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties as a strategy for immigrant integration. Lifelong English language acquisition is a worthy goal in and of itself, says Manuel Santamaria, Director of Grantmaking with the community foundation. “Research shows that if you’re reading and writing at an 8th grade level of English, your economic well-being increases along with a gain in educational opportunities.”

Guadalupe Valdes and ESL students

Stanford Professor Guadalupe Valdes and ESL students.

English students need to advance through different learning levels. But Santamaria says in California, earning those credits can be a lot more complicated than it would appear. Community colleges and adult schools both teach English, but they do so on parallel tracks and usually focus on slightly different populations.  Currently, some don’t recognize transfer credits – a challenge the community foundation is working to address on a regional level, and one that would affect Puente as well.

“These systems are massive, but through the learning cohorts they’ve started to plan together,” says Santamaria.

Transportation is another issue. Cañada College offers a popular ESL class in Half Moon Bay thanks to a grant from the Workforce Investment Act, but many Pescadero residents don’t have the means of transportation to attend. Other schools are “over the hill” in San Mateo or Los Altos.

“Agricultural and rural communities on the coast need to benefit from what’s happening on this side of the Bay,” adds Santamaria, referring to the fact that language schools are more plentiful in urban areas.

Support from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the Zellerbach Foundation provide much needed funding to Puente in a time of growing demand for ESL classes.

Click here for Puente’s fall schedule of classes or contact Kassi Talbot at ktalbot@mypuente.org or (650)879-1691 ext.138.

Puente “rallies” for the holidays

On the South Coast, Puente knows some program participants struggle to muster holiday cheer. It’s a time when family matters most – and for those living without their families, it can be very tough.

“It’s the time of year when people feel depressed because they’re alone …  and also a time when their economic deprivation is real,” says Kerry Lobel, Executive Director of Puente.

Puente works hard to make sure the holidays will be a source of comfort and joy to everyone we serve, by giving people opportunities to celebrate together.

Both Puente’s Dia de los Muertos and Community Posada celebrations are supported by the Bella Vista Foundation to fight maternal depression, by bringing people together in community rituals that foster a sense of connection.

Pescadero’s Anglo and Latino communities enjoy coming together to celebrate La Posada, an elaborate live tableau that limns the Bible account of Joseph and Mary as they look for a place to give birth to the baby Jesus.

The Posada procession on December 21 culminates in a town-wide holiday party with food, music and an auction. Santa himself puts in a jolly appearance and gives children Christmas stockings filled with school supplies and toys, collected by Puente and generous donors.

To that end, Puente needs your help to make this holiday season special for the 68 families and 140 children who rely on your donations to make it through.  Please see our wish list for children’s Christmas stocking-stuffers. New this year, Puente is raising $7,000 via a special campaign drive on Rally.org to give South Coast parents a gift card that will allow them to shop for their children.

We are proud to announce that a generous donor will contribute $10 to Puente for each new donor who uses Rally this holiday season. Even better, the Sobrato Family Foundation will match new and increased gifts to Puente for our holiday program, dollar for dollar.

Each gift card will have a $50 value. “Often what people want is to be able to buy a present for the kids. You don’t lose your ability to pick a gift for your child just because you’re poor,” says Lobel.

Puente is sole provider of holiday gift cards and food and other basic supplies for the entire South Coast region. Puente distributed 85 turkeys at Thanksgiving in conjunction with St. Vincent de Paul and will do the same for Christmas. Puente also provides a meal for hundreds of townsfolk following La Posada, and a separate meal for 75 men during La Sala, Puente’s community living room for farm and nursery workers.

Blankets, sleeping bags, jackets and socks are in high demand, since many farm and nursery workers lack sufficient heating and work outside in wet fields.

Please donate to Puente at Rally.org by December 31, 2012. Come celebrate with Puente at Hanukkah and Christmas! Details at www.mypuente.org.

Students soon free to work, study, and dream

For Azura Aguilar, receiving an envelope in the mail from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services would normally evoke a feeling of terror: the fear of being deported to Mexico, which she left when she was 8 years old.

But on September 17, she ripped open her envelope with a mounting sense of joy. Inside was a notice that her application for the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program was being processed by the USCIS. It was cause for celebration at the Puente office, with hugs all around.

It meant that Aguilar’s dreams may actually come true.

I can start driving to school with no problem, getting to work. And after my major I can actually work somewhere I want to be,” says the 20-year-old.

Under DACA, successful program applicants (all aged 30 or younger) are guaranteed the right to remain in the U.S for two years and work.  The paperwork must be renewed every two years.

David Pasternak leads Deferred Action workshop at Puente

Aguilar, of course, has already been living and working in the U.S. for some time. She has two part-time jobs in addition to her coursework at community college. But now she also has the hope that, when she graduates, she can start a career in her chosen field – child psychology.

Aguilar is one of 14 young people from Coastside communities who got help preparing their applications under DACA in early September with assistance from Puente, Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto (CLSEPA) and other private attorneys. (Across the country, some 82,000 individuals did the same). Herrera was one of the first to have her package processed.

Rosa Gomez is the CLSEPA lawyer who handled their applications. She hosted two informational sessions at Puente in August along with David Pasternak, a private attorney, as well as a workshop to apply in September. She has mixed feelings about DACA, which presents such incredible opportunity to undocumented youth – but can be revoked at any time on a political whim.

Left to right- attorneys Jessica, Rosa, and Helen enjoying some fresh Portrero Nuevo produce after their hard work

“Before this, I had to tell these young people – who have lived here all their lives, have babies, who are smart – that they couldn’t work here legally,” says Gomez.

“What I dislike most is there is no path to citizenship or a Green Card from this program. It’s a memo.”

Gomez did not sugarcoat the risks of the program when explaining it to South Coast youth. President Obama used his executive powers to establish DACA, but it could be revoked if Mitt Romney takes over the White House (Romney has sidestepped questions on DACA so far). Perhaps that explains why just 7 in 100 eligible undocumented youth have applied – or 7 percent of an estimated 1.2 million eligible applicants.

Gomez predicts more South Coast youth will apply in the next round.

“I think people are really excited to see what will happen. I think people are also in desperation, in a sense,” she says.


To learn more about Puente’s efforts around DACA, contact Program Director Rita Mancera at (650) 879-1691 or rmancera@mypuente.org.