Maria Morales, 33, wants to become a pharmacist. Tony Agurcia, 29, wants to help his daughter with her homework. Mariaes Quiñones, 53, wants to get a job in a day care center.
Although their reasons vary, all of the students who come to El Centro Comunitario de Educación in Deer Park have one goal in common: improving their English skills.
The group, which has a sister campus in Brentwood, celebrated its 10th anniversary last month and is preparing to take its mission across Long Island.
Operating out of Ascension Lutheran Church on Bay Shore Road, El Centro began after Marlene Ramos-Velita, 49, who emigrated from Peru in 1982, saw a need for more outreach to the Latino community. With the church's support, she began to hold English as a Second Language classes on site, with her teenage sons and a handful of church volunteers as teachers.
At first, the students who showed up were all young males and they were often shy and embarrassed, she said. To keep the classes going, Ramos-Velita turned toward her existing job as a Spanish teacher at Syosset High School. She thought the experience could benefit her Syosset students, whom she said did not have any personal experience with immigrants.
"I was looking at who wanted to take this beyond the classroom and make this symbiotic," she said. With former El Centro teachers returning as mentors, Ramos-Velita said she has created a self-sustaining model that now attracts students from other than just Spanish-speaking countries. For 10 weeks each summer, 12 of Ramos-Velita's junior or senior high school students teach free classes at El Centro twice a week.The program has become an internship that has helped many get into Ivy League schools. "It's become very competitive," she said. Lynn Hur, 17, of Syosset, taught this year and realized she's "making a difference" but also learned that "these people are very wise and have much more experience in life so I'm always interested in listening to what they have to say as well." El Centro will undergo a change next year: Ramos-Velita has left her job in Syosset to be an administrator and middle-school teacher in Great Neck. She's hoping now to attract teachers from high schools across Long Island to El Centro. She said the group is in the process of becoming a nonprofit and would like to open another location.
"There is a growing need," she said. "We want to give immigrants the resources to empower themselves."
There now are whole families who come, she said, with children taught separately while their parents attend the beginner, intermediate or advanced classes. The group also has GED, computer and citizenship classes and served about 30 students this year. The Brentwood program begun three years ago has 50 students.
Tony Agurcia, 29, was one of the first students at the Deer Park El Centro. As a single Honduran immigrant, he said he "didn't even know the ABCs" when he started. This year he returned to El Centro, married with three children. He took the advanced English class, he said, because he wants to be able to help his daughter Valerie, 7, with her homework and better understand what is discussed during school meetings.
"If you live in this country, you need to know English," Agurcia said. "It's everything."
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