During the REFORMA National Conference IV in Denver, Colorado, the Richardson Public Library presented a pre-conference on an adult education program for Hispanics known as Plaza Comunitaria. Public libraries have been providing adult literacy since the 1860s to immigrants by teaching English and citizenship classes. After ALA created a manual for adult literacy in libraries in the 1980s, adult literacy programs began to grow. Today many libraries of different kinds go beyond and offer basic computer skills, GED preparation courses, and different kind of classes than ever before. Due to lack of funding, many ESL and GED classes have been closed. Plaza Comunitaria is a free curriculum in Spanish created by the Mexican National Institute of Adult Education (INEA) to help Hispanics learn to read and write in their native language and finish Elementary and Intermediate level education certified by the Mexican Department of Education. This program serves as a transition into English classes as it establishes a foundation for Hispanic immigrants to work with. The following is a summary of the pre-conference presentation.
In 2005, the Richardson Public Library in Texas was awarded from the Texas Library Association a grant to send one of its staff members to Mexico to receive training on the Plaza Comunitaria Program. The Mexican Consulate offices in Dallas, Texas became our liaison with the INEA. A Work Program Agreement was signed in May 2006 between the INEA, the Mexican Consulate and the Richardson Public Library. This agreement would give us access to INEA’s registration and testing system known for its acronym SASACE. We also have access to all textbooks (printed version, on-line and on pdf files). We received a full set of all 42 titles that compose the MEVYT curriculum for Elementary and Middle School level education.
We gathered and trained a total of 12 Latino volunteer tutors that would work two hours per week in study groups of 10 students
We applied for a grant in January 2006 to the Texas Book Festival to purchase three computers and one printer for the Plaza Comunitaria. We were granted $5,000 in April 2006. A former supervisor’s office became our computer lab and the library provided us with four additional computers that are connected to the City of Richardson’s computer network.
We submitted other grant applications and were able to obtain materials for GED instruction, citizenship classes, TOEFL preparation courses and ESL classes. At this time, the library offers us a budget of $3,500 annually for our expenses which include books, supplies and the graduation ceremony dinner.
In July 2006, the Richardson Public Library inaugurated the Plaza Comunitaria Program. Announcements promoting the inauguration were sent to Hispanic newspapers and radio stations, supermarkets, churches, schools and public libraries. We had planned to reach 25 students but we inaugurated with 63 instead. We gathered and trained a total of 12 Latino volunteer tutors that would work two hours per week in study groups of 10 students. By the end of 2006, we had registered 110 students. We now work with an average of 200 students every year. All students took diagnostic testing to determine their class schedules. Free copies of the books assigned to the students were printed and provided at the library’s expense.
Adult Hispanics continued requesting classes all year. By 2007, we had registered and performed diagnostic testing on 176 students. Students come and go due to family and work problems. Lack of space and volunteer tutors to work with individual students also contributed to the problem. The curriculum could be overwhelming to many students. Basic literacy students, those learning to read and write as adults, take a considerable amount of time to learn. Very few basic literacy students continued the program due to frustrations and low self-esteem. As of 2010, we are working with an average of 200 students every year with seventy percent retention.
Volunteer tutors are hard to retain. Recruitment of tutors is continuous. We visit professional and cultural associations to recruit tutors. We also recruit students who have finished the program. Many have come and gone but we keep between 20 and 30 tutors a month available for our students. Basic literacy students require individual attention. Tutors must be available for Mathematics, Spanish, History and Science. To be effective, tutors must remain with their students for long periods of time, though they only meet three hours weekly. An average stay is one year. It is too much to ask of a volunteer to stay longer even though at this time we have 3 volunteers that have been with us for six years and 10 that have been with us for more than two years.
In September 2009, the Plaza Comunitaria program partnered with the Richardson Independent School District After-School Program, which provides us with two paid teachers who work with a group of 20 Plaza middle school level students once a week for three hours at a school facility. Ninety two percent of these students continued the program and the rest were replaced with new students. They took their subject tests and passed them.
Each book in the curriculum requires a one to three months period to complete and test for except for Basic Literacy that takes an average of a year to complete the first book. Both Elementary and Middle School levels require a total of 12 books to complete the educational level.
As the coordinator is a library staff member that is also a Supervisor of Technical Services at the library, the job requires a lot of time and effort. Coordinators must schedule their time wisely since they are performing the work of two people. Students are registered and placement tested only four months in the year. It is less stressful if the library can hire a part time coordinator.
A graduation ceremony is prepared every January since 2007 to honor those who completed an educational level. From 2007 through 2010, 150 students have graduated from the program. The ceremony takes place at the City Hall/Civic Center with a special guest speaker, dinner and entertainment. It has become the most important activity of the program. The pride and happiness in the student’s faces are indescribable.
During the summer, we organize special activities for our students. We have had seminars on self-esteem, domestic violence, personal finances, college funds, mortgages and a health fair. We have taken students on field trips to author lectures and museums.
Coordinating the Plaza Comunitaria Program is very hard work. It is a challenge but very rewarding. Librarians are agents of change. We are making a difference. The work is rewarding and has a tremendous need in the Hispanic community. More libraries should get involved with this program. It works.