ESL program helps parents

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 7, 2002

Everyday is a learning experience for Ellis Middle School English as a Second Language assistant Jose Rivera.

During his time at Ellis, Rivera has put together monthly informational meetings for Spanish-speaking parents. In the meetings Rivera discusses routine information of activities going on in the school.

He provides informational literature in Spanish on adolescent issues that is often difficult for parents to find, Rivera said.

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"I worked for a couple of years for all the schools. They would call me for whenever they needed me to meet with parents. I was always running from one school to another," Rivera recalled.

As a tutor at Ellis Middle School, he does not have to do so much running around anymore, at least not outside of Ellis. He works as an assistant teacher in the ESL classroom and tutor on other subjects.

"Jose is priceless. He has helped us build a rapport with parents so they can understand what is going on from little things like what to do on a snow day to explaining changes in policies. He speaks both of the languages and understands both of the cultures," Ellis principal Candace Raskin said.

The beauty of having him working at the school, Raskin said, is that he is always accessible and is an advocate in helping to communicate with the parents. He has helped bridge the gap for the parents and the school, Raskin said.

"We are very happy that he is here, because it gives us the opportunity to know what's going and on and speak to someone in Spanish," said Maria Luisa Barquiarena, a mother of one of Rivera's students.

With the growing Spanish-speaking population, among other minorities in Austin, schools have had to find ways to communicate and facilitate services for new residents.

Before Rivera started Raskin said that the school usually asked bilingual students or parents to interpret documents and policies.

"When he first started we didn't have registration forms in Spanish so it was difficult for some parents to enroll their kids and have answer to their questions," ESL teacher Deb Nelson said.

Nelson who has worked closely with Rivera said he has helped parents and students feel more at ease because he can communicate in their own language.

"Someone will call my classroom asking if he is there and I usually have to say, no I don't where he is because he is running around helping in other classrooms," Nelson said.

Rivera arrived to Austin from El Progreso, Honduras five years ago. He speaks with a joyful tone and expressive hand gestures through his proud Central American accent.

"I came to visit Austin with some friends and they invited me to one of their friend's house," Rivera said. Once back in Honduras Rivera wrote a thank you note for that friend's hospitality. Rivera and the friend, Irene, continued to write to each other until one day they decided to get married. The rest is history he said.

He laid carpet and worked at the Holiday Inn before he became the traveling interpreter between the schools of the district.

Rivera admits the biggest challenge has been the language, so he knows how hard it is for some parents. Though he was required to study English in Honduras, he said when he arrived in the United States he only new the basics.

He recalled he had been in the United States a few months and was in a teachers meeting. In the middle of the conversation someone retorted, "No way, Jose." Rivera confused by the meaning of the phrase got up from his chair and wondered what he had done.

"They explained to me what it meant, that it was only an expression. Up to this day every time I hear a new phrase or word, I write it down and study it at the end of the day," Rivera explained.

Last month Rivera helped organize a dinner event where parents cooked traditional meals for the Ellis faculty and staff.

The relationship between the parents and teachers is a lot closer than before, Rivera said.

"That's the reason I love my job. We are working on a team. If I did not have any support, I could not do anything. We need to work together and get to know each other, not just Hispanics but everyone," Rivera said.

Roxana Orellana can be reached at 434-2214 or by e-mail at