Breaking barriers through language: Richmond College Prep and YES Nature to Neighborhoods join forces to offer free Spanish lessons for local adults
By The Justin Warren, Chamberlin Family Foundation
“¡Buenos dias!” said Johnnie George Towns after catching a bright yellow ball from across the circle of her classmates. She tossed it to volunteer instructor Marcela Jaimes-Rodriguez, who smiled and responded, “buenas tardes.”
Towns and a dozen others had gathered in the main entrance of Richmond College Prep (RCP), where parent interest and community support led to a unique chance for local adults to learn Spanish from one another at the charter school.
“Over the years I have heard English speakers in Richmond, mostly African American parents, say they wanted to learn Spanish,” said Tana Monteiro, RCP’s Director of Community Engagement, who has worked in the past year to strengthen her school’s community outreach, especially to African American families in the neighborhood whose children make up 27% of the charter school’s enrollment.
As part of her inclusion effort, Monteiro created an annual dinner for African American parents with students enrolled at the charter school. At this year’s dinner, she learned that some parents in her school community wanted a chance to practice a language that is increasingly common in Richmond and across West Contra Costa.
“I think this goes back to the basic truth that people want to be connected, want to be friends, want to help, and want to know their neighbors better,” Monteiro said.
Monteiro didn’t have to look far to gather interest and additional support for the new class. In only three days, Monteiro recalled, 16 parents and community members had signed up. Before long, she had to start a waitlist.
To accommodate the growing interest, she reached out to a number of community organizations for support, and found a willing partner in YES Nature to Neighborhoods.
Angelica Delgado, the Adult Leaders Coordinator at YES, replied that four Spanish-speaking members of the organization’s newest Adult Leaders Cohort were eager to embrace the opportunity to teach.
“The best solutions come from listening to our community,” Delgado said. “This is an opportunity that organically came up as a need and desire among Richmond residents, and our Adult Leaders were there to respond.”
Top: Juanita Towns (left) follows a lesson from volunteer instructor Cindy Perez. Above: Johnnie George Towns participates in a warm-up activity at a recent class session at Richmond College Prep.
But despite their many years in the community, including as educators, none of the YES Adult Leader volunteers had previously taught Spanish.
To strengthen the lessons, they turned to Mariela Alcocer Ruiz, a Spanish teacher at Korematsu Middle School, and Adult School teacher Mike Duwaldi for guidance and materials to build an engaging curriculum.
“I met with them initially,” said Alcocer Ruiz, a 13-year veteran who teaches seventh and eighth graders. “I took a bag of all my supplies and activities I’ve done over the years. The key is lots of listening and one-to-one correspondence,” she said.
The resulting class incorporates games, songs, skits and interactive role-plays to allow everyone to practice speaking and listening. As they had intended from their first brainstorming sessions, the volunteer instructors designed each session to keep the learning interactive and fun.
Above: Class participants prepare pico de gallo from instructions in Spanish with support from volunteers from YES Nature to Neighborhoods at Richmond College Prep. A Spanish learner reviews a food-related vocabulary list.
To fully incorporate Alcocer Ruiz’s advice, the students and instructors focused one session on culinary arts. They brought fresh produce to the school’s kitchen to learn vocabulary about food and cooking while preparing fresh pico de gallo and guacamole.
“You have to learn it visually,” Alcocer Ruiz said, explaining that the image of the new word has to be there to provide real-world context.
The class brought together a core group of participants who are not only improving their Spanish speaking and listening skills, but also building new cultural knowledge and personal connections across their own community.
“The Spanish Class at RCP brings together Richmond residents who have been historically separated by language barriers,” Delgado said about the broader impact of the class.
“I don’t like the separation,” said Towns in between lessons. She emphasized her motivation to improve her Spanish speaking and listening to connect with neighbors in her community. “I’m determined to learn, you know, so it won’t be a barrier.”
Because the free class was open to all (including community members without a formal connection to school), it encouraged a unique cross-section of adult learners to learn more about one another through language, according to Minnie Setty, Acting Executive Director at the Chamberlin Family Foundation. According to Setty, the foundation offered start-up support for the class in part because of its ability to strengthen connections between the charter school, outside partners, and the wider community.
“We applaud Tana’s initiative and outreach to local partners, and agree with her vision that a school can address broader community needs in addition to those of its students and families,” Setty said.
Johnnie George Towns reviews new words and phrases to describe familial relationships.
For some participants, the desire to learn stems from recognizing the benefits to their professional career. Meghan Cadmus, a Site Coordinator for Sparkpoint Contra Costa, shared with classmates that she hopes that improving her Spanish can help ensure that community resources like SparkPoint are accessible and that its clients feel welcome.
For other students, the desire to learn is personal. One parent described wanting to keep pace with the Spanish her kids were learning in school. Her classmate expressed a desire to communicate more actively with new neighbors near her Richmond home.
For Johnnie George Towns, the creation of the class meant that the opportunity she had long awaited had finally become accessible.
After tossing the bright yellow ball around, working with an instructor to build her vocabulary, pushing herself to improve her pronunciation, and singing a Spanish-language song, she seemed as eager to continue her learning as when the two-hour session began.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for years and years and years, but never was able to,” Towns said during a closing reflection activity.
“This is the joy, for me, to do it now. I’m so excited!” she continued, voicing her thoughts in English to express her enthusiasm. “I want to be able to say all this in Spanish.”
“We’ll get there,” her instructor assured her from across the circle that now connected them.
Note: This story was produced by Chamberlin Family Foundation (CFF) in collaboration with Richmond College Prep and YES Nature to Neighborhoods. CFF proudly supported the community Spanish class this spring at Richmond College Prep as part of its ongoing effort to promote stronger charter-community partnerships, and deepen engagement between charter schools and African American families in West Contra Costa.