WASHOUGAL — Bibiana Picho-Garcia has a new person to commiserate with this school year while doing homework: her mother.
“She always asks me if this is what I go through at school,” said Picho-Garcia, 16, a Washougal High School junior. “I’m like, ‘Yes, you finally understand me.’ ”
Picho-Garcia also helps her mother, Esmeralda Garcia-Marquez, with homework on occasion, specifically on some translation issues. Garcia-Marquez is one of the students in an English class offered at Hathaway Elementary School twice a week. The three-hour class is a partnership between the Washougal School District and Clark College.
The students, who are mostly parents in the Washougal School District, register for the class at Clark. The class started in April and went through the rest of last school year. It started back up toward the end of September.
“We want them to feel as comfortable here as English-speaking parents,” said Nancy Nass-Boon, the family resource coordinator in the district. “This is their kids’ school.”
The idea for the class traces back to a potluck Hathaway hosted for English language learner families at the school in November. Nass-Boon and Chung Savoie, coordinator of the district’s English language learner program, wanted to get the families together, let them know about what resources were available to them and see what else they could do for them.
“They overwhelmingly wanted something like this,” Nass-Boon said.
Parents said the drive to Vancouver was too far to attend classes at Clark, especially after getting home from work or while trying to look after young kids. The district and Clark then teamed up to start the class in April. Nass-Boon said classes have held steady with around 16 students, although it has gotten up into the 20s on certain days. It also comes with free child care.
There are about 90 English language learner students in the district, although once the class started, Nass-Boon and Savoie opened it up to anyone who lives in the district who was interested. About three students who come to class don’t have students in the district.
Clark hired Heidi Dryden, a Washougal resident, to teach the class. She said the curriculum is pretty flexible, since it’s a multi-level class where some students are college graduates working full time in America, and some have maybe around one year of language schooling.
Dryden said the flexibility allows her to play with lesson plans to incorporate topics the students will encounter outside the classroom. This quarter, she spent the first four weeks of classes going over body parts and illnesses, so students could converse with doctors.
At Tuesday night’s class, she went over topics and questions that might be covered in upcoming parent-teacher conferences. Students had to complete homework asking them what their child is good at, what they need work on and how they can help them.
“When I go to appointments for my children, I need to know more,” said Garcia-Marquez, who moved to Washougal from Mexico 14 years ago. “I want to learn English for more independence.”
Dryden said there are a few goals for students in the class. Ultimately, the goal is to get the students to a level of proficiency in English where they could take other classes at Clark, if they want. She also wants them to feel comfortable enough to get more connected to the community. She wants them to come into the school to help out in their children’s classrooms.
“Volunteering is the goal,” said Savoie. “A lot of these families feel intimidated. We hope they can break that feeling.”
Dryden also tries to split the classes into groups based on their English knowledge. Some students can speak English fluently but have problems reading and/or writing.
Bassam Atto, who moved to Washougal four years ago from Iraq, said he struggles with writing. Atto worked as a veterinarian in Iraq before moving to Washougal, and he said if he’s reading a medical book, he can zip through it.
He said he struggles with “weird” words in English, where the pronunciation and spelling don’t seem to line up, like for “stomach” or “Wednesday.” He does have some help at home.
“My middle school daughter, she’s my teacher. She’s my trainer,” he said. “She corrects me all the time. For older people, it’s hard. Younger people just get it quicker.”
His two older daughters moved to Washougal, graduated high school and are students at Washington State University Vancouver.
Atto said he didn’t know any of his classmates before class started, but he likes having a place to go to where he can talk to other people who know what he’s going through.
Dryden said a new addition to class this quarter has been a dinner during the break halfway through class. Each week, a different student brings in dinner, usually food from their native country, and all the students eat together while talking.
On Tuesday, Pornthita Linden, originally from Thailand, brought in Thai food. It was the first time some of the students in class had tried Thai food.
Dryden also has the class take some field trips during the 10-week course. On Halloween, they’re going to a carnival, and to get there, they have to practice following directions in English. They’re also going to a resource fair coming up in the district, and they’ll have to go talk to different organizations and report back on what they do.
Savoie, who moved to Vancouver from South Korea in 1999, said it’s more meaningful to include the students in districtwide events than to keep them separate and create events for them.
“I learned English at Clark College, and it helped me adapt to life in America. I know what these parents need and what they wish to have,” Savoie said. “I believe in education as a bridge to finding a better job or a better life.”