New Americans confront new budget cuts

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March 17, 2003 // UPDATED 9:21 am - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Gov. Pawlenty cut adult-education subsidies to preserve K-12 class sizes. In Loring Park, adult immigrant learners bear the brunt as classes double from 20 students to 40.

In Beth Upton's advanced English class at the Abraham Lincoln English Language Learning Center, a class of adults reads aloud a passage from an essay about President Kennedy. As one student reads, he comes to the word "crowd" and asks for the definition. Another student replies, "This room is crowded."

More than 40 students are packed into a class that had previously held 20 -- but that was before state budget cuts to adult basic education. The politically correct term is "unallotment." In January, Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut funding allotted last July to all state adult basic education programs by 4.67 percent, to balance the state's 2003 budget.

"We had already planned for that money. The money technically wasn't spent, but budgetarily it was," said Aaron Krueger, principal of Abraham Lincoln English Language Learning Center, 1730 Clifton Place in Loring Park.

The Abraham Lincoln English Language Learning Center's adult program took a $26,200 hit. That meant making some fulltime teachers part-time, laying off one part-time employee, and putting poorer English speakers in classes with more fluent ones.

"We did our best to not have it impact the services that our students get," Krueger said. "We do have larger class sizes, though."

One face of adult basic education

The Lincoln English Center has operated in Minneapolis for the past 10 years. It is one arm of the Institute for New Americans, which also runs a high school and advocacy programs for new immigrants.

Students at the Lincoln English Center come from more than 40 countries and speak more than 27 native languages. Class levels range from pre-literate to pre-college. Approximately 360 students enroll at the Lincoln Center each quarter. Classes are free.

Classes at the school are held in three shifts -- 9 a.m.-noon; 1 p.m.-4 p.m.; 5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. -- to accommodate diverse schedules.

The Lincoln Center's three-pronged curriculum sets it apart from other adult basic education programs. All students learn English, civics/government and life skills.

The approach drew instructor Beth Upton. She's taught at Lincoln for six years, but her career teaching English spans 30 years.

"I fell in love with this place because its ideal is to be a bridge," she said. "People come here and take English as a bridge to self-sufficiency. But we also teach them how to integrate themselves into the community."

This curriculum is also why Cesar Merino believes the Lincoln Center has one of the best new-immigrant programs in Minneapolis. "I was learning English at the University of Minnesota before I came here. I think this is better," said Merino, a doctor from Ecuador.

Merino and classmate Marcela Rojas say they have found the American civics and life-skill lessons as important as learning the language. "This school is not only for language. It tries to introduce new people into the American culture," Rojas said. "That's very important to us."

Merino said American police officers and lawyers regularly visit classes to introduce themselves and answer questions the students may have. "Our status [as immigrants] does not matter. Police come. Lawyers come here, and we are not scared," Merino said. "They listen to our questions. The police give us safety tips."

And Rojas said during the elections in November, students held mock elections in the classroom. "We learned about all the different [political] parties. We didn't know anything about that before," she said. "We even learned about redistricting. This integration is something new for us."

Less money means more students for fewer teachers

While students enjoy the Lincoln Center's subjects, many do not enjoy the larger class sizes that unallotment forced.

Upton's English class teaches the school's most advanced learners. To adjust to funding cuts, Upton's class absorbed the 20-some students enrolled in the second-most-advanced class, whose teacher had her hours cut.

Merino said he has noticed the cuts' negative effects. "I can see the changes. I prefer the small group because the teacher can more easily listen to us and correct us," Merino said. "I try not to ask too many questions now, because I don't want to stop the class too often. It's not just a class for me."

Alicia Tobin, a student teacher from Hamline University, had helped out in the second-most-advanced English class. Now, she worries they will not learn as easily as in their own smaller class.

"Today, we were doing a listening activity, and it was a clear split between the students who were understanding and the students who weren't," Tobin said. "The students who understood had been in the higher-level class."

Although students such as Merino are accomplished professionals, others have never even held a pencil and can't read or write in their own language.

Tobin and the students credit Upton with making the combined class work as best she can.

"Before [we combined] I thought this would not be good, but I think Beth is doing a good job," said Paula Rossi, a lawyer from Brazil.

Merino agreed. "The quality of teachers here is very high. In this class are very qualified people," he said. "We have engineers and PhDs in computer science. We can learn very fast. But Beth teaches so that even people who don't have degrees also can learn."

Rossi is one student who actually likes having more students in the classroom. "I enjoy the bigger class because I can make more friends," she said.