STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. Yngris Duran needs to speak English to get and maintain a job, to understand her kids, to speak with their teachers, to navigate American society and to feel a part of it, Ms. Duran has been taking English classes for several years at Make the Road New York, an advocacy center that provides adult education classes in Port Richmond.
She arrived at her last class of the season last week with a feast shed cooked for her classmates chicken, potato salad, and Dominican arroz con guandule to celebrate the semester and its accomplishments.
But along with celebration came uncertainty. Its unclear whether the classes will resume as scheduled in August, or be canceled altogether by a line in the proposed city budget that would eliminate all city-funded adult literacy programs under contract through the Department of Youth and Community Development.
Ms. Duran is one of more than 26 percent of Staten Islanders who speak a language other than English at home according to figures from the last Census.
City budget negotiations enter the final round this week, with or without help from Albany or Washington, facing a deadline of June 30. Also candidates for the ax are senior centers, firehouses and libraries, and funding for jobs and social services and cultural organizations.
An estimated 275 Staten Islanders would lose the chance to study English this year at Make the Roads Port Richmond office alone. Conservatively, adult education director Julie Quinton guessed the cut would impact about 1,000 adult students boroughwide.
The Jewish Community Center (JCC), which lost $500,000 last year of what had been the states only stream of funding for English as a Second Language classes, would also be impacted by city cuts; El Centro del Inmigrante, also in Port Richmond, will lose its ESL and GED classes as of Sept. 30, said board member Terry Troia.
If [the city] takes away our class, we are going to lose the opportunity to be part of American society, and we wont be able to help our children to improve their education and their futures, said Ms. Duran, a native of the Dominican Republic whose primary reason for living in the U.S. is to afford a better life and education for her daughter and son.
Ms. Duran, who was granted a green card, immigrated to the United States on February 19, 2000, the day before her 25th birthday.
In her arms was her 2-year-old daughter, Arlene, a comfort against the heartache of leaving her mother, siblings and niece and the world she knew in the province of Santiago Rodriguez.
The flight was delayed because it was snowing here, but Id never seen snow, so my mind was empty about the situation, said Ms. Duran last week, remembering the trip that separated her from her homeland but united her with her husband, a maintenance worker who at the time could afford to place his family in a one-room Manhattan apartment they shared with his friend.
They moved to Port Richmond in 2001.
I love Staten Island because its like a little town, said Ms. Duran. But sometimes its very difficult. I need to improve my English to get a job. Its totally necessary.
Ms. Duran is looking for work, but she held a job previously at a warehouse, packing beauty supplies in Brooklyn. Despite an exhausting two-hour commute each way, Ms. Duran went to classes from 7 to 9 at El Centro del Inmigrante, also in Port Richmond.
Her current class of 30 at Make the Road meets for four hours on Tuesdays and Thursday nights. Its one of six classes offered at the organizations Port Richmond branch. Five of them will be cut if Mayor Michael Bloombergs proposed eliminations are approved, said adult educator Gabriela OLeary, Ms. Durans teacher.
If the mayors proposed cuts go through, thousands of students across the Island and the city would lose the opportunity to practice skills and develop confidence and comfort in the language that they need, said Ms. OLeary. Perhaps even more significantly, these students would lose a vital space where community, dialogue, friendship, reflection, hope, and collective action all thrive. The ESL classroom is about so much more than learning new verbs and vocabulary. Its a place where students work together to live with dignity in a new language and in a new community.
Students at Make the Road have rallied at City Hall, written letters to City Council, and collected about 400 signatures on Staten Island for a petition to save the adult language courses.
Sometimes my kids are having a conversation in English and I cant understand them, wrote Ms. Duran in one of the letters Make the Road students drafted in class. Its frustrating. I dont want to be lost in my own family.
Our bosses, our government, hospitals, and immigration officials all tell us that English is necessary and that its the best way to push up our families and help the economy, wrote Graciela Behari of Port Richmond, originally from Colombia.
If we cant learn English, we cant get better jobs to help the economy grow, said Guatemala native Carlos Castellanos of Port Richmond.
We dont want to face discrimination because we dont speak English, wrote Sotera Sanchez of Port Richmond, formerly from Mexico. We need America and America needs us.