Where dreams begin: community college comes to Puente

When Puente decided to offer its first community college-level ESL class in Pescadero in nearly a decade, staff had no way of knowing whether students would enroll. This wasn’t just any class, but a specialized Cañada College adult ESL course focused on learning language skills for the workforce.

They needn’t have worried. On February 23, the inaugural class drew so many adult students – men and women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s – that Puente staff had to hustle in two more tables to seat everyone inside the repurposed Pescadero Elementary fourth-grade classroom.

It was a special night. Puente staff members Rita Mancera and Noel Chavez beamed from the doorway as instructor Gerardo Pacheco welcomed students to what was (in most cases) their very first college-level ESL class.

“I was an ESL student just like you,” Professor Pacheco told students. “If I was able to do it, you can do it.”

Pacheco was 16 when he came to the U.S. in 1999 from the Yucatan –alone – and resettled in Redwood City. He spoke no English.

“I remember the day I went to my first ESL class at Cañada College. I was terrified because everyone in the class already spoke English. I made a decision right there. I told myself, ‘Gerardo, if you quit right now, all of your life you’ll be a quitter when things get bad.’ I haven’t regretted that decision, because it gave me an education. And education was the key to my future,” he told the assembled students, who nodded and smiled.

His message about the future was very on-topic. This ESL course is built around teaching students the ESL skills they need to be successful in the workplace – their future workplace, in addition to their present one.

Gerardo with ESL students on their first night of classes in Pescadero.

Gerardo Pacheco with ESL students on their first night of classes in Pescadero.

The class is offered through the La Costa Adult School, a precedent-setting collaboration between the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District and the Cabrillo Unified School District in Half Moon Bay, along with Puente and Cañada College. The parties are members of the San Mateo ACCEL Consortium, a larger countywide initiative to streamline connections between adult schools and community colleges. The goal is to expand career options for adult learners. It is funded in part by a state block grant.

The partnership creates a pathway for adults who have mastered Puente’s three levels of ESL classes and want to go further in their education, says Noel Chavez, Puente Education Director.

“We want them to have a next step. I really hope the students will be empowered to continue with their education, whether through Cañada classes that will become a fixture at Puente in the near future, or physically at Cañada College,” says Chavez.

No matter where they live or what they do for work, students can imagine themselves in their future careers and Cañada College will give them the information and skills they need to get there, says Jenny Castello, Professor/Coordinator of the college’s ESL Department.

“We always want them to be thinking ahead to what comes after ESL – to get them thinking big,” she says.

A major highlight of the new Puente-based college ESL class will be group visit to the Cañada College campus for a series of presentations on careers and majors open to ESL students. They’ll hear from Cañada faculty who teach everything from international business and fashion design to medical assisting, and get details on qualifying for each career. They’ll learn about the job outlook for different fields as well as salary ranges.

“We meet the students where they are and help get them ready for college – including career, academic, technical and college information, along with ESL,” says Castello. Some careers require a certificate, while others may require an associate’s degree or something more advanced. She estimates that it may take a student seven years to achieve a certificate or degree if they start in the lower levels of ESL.

Daunting, perhaps, but not impossible. Students bring their own dreams to a class like this one – and very often they involve careers far beyond their field of experience. Take Aurelia Morales (not her real name), a full-time receptionist who enrolled in Puente’s new ESL class to improve her written English and prepare herself for a potential career as a childcare provider or a substitute teacher in the local preschool.

“I want to have more experience in different fields. Not just answering phones,” she says.

Morales has another career idea, too – but she doesn’t know how to accomplish it. “Do you know what my dream always was? As a child, my dream was to educate other women who struggle with violence. I recall witnessing this in the community.

I’d love to help in some way, maybe in the nonprofit sector.”

Students like Morales will graduate from this ESL class with a grasp on practical uses of English, such as how to fill out an application for employment, interview for a job and describe work skills, explain career goals in writing, reply to emails, and call in to work.

Professor Pacheco takes tremendous pleasure in seeing his students succeed. He is a respected poet who earned his MFA at San Francisco State, where he now teaches creative writing. But less than 20 years ago, he was a teenaged immigrant working at a carwash in Menlo Park – the guy with the broom full of suds.

“I was a janitor, too. You can see that getting an education pays off. I proved my own theory,” he says with a smile.

 Puente’s adult education program is generously supported by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the San Mateo ACCEL Consortium, and the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District for the use of the facilities, as well as Puente’s own general fund, which relies on sustaining donations from the wider Puente community. Click here to become a monthly donor or to make a gift to provide graduation scholarships for the adults in our programs.

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