BEAVERTON — On any given Tuesday or Thursday evening, about 150 immigrants pursue the American dream with help from seasoned educators — the Sisters of St. Mary of Oregon.
For the third year, the Sisters are offering low-cost classes in English. After long days of work and parenting, immigrants come to learn reading, writing and conversation.
On this night, Sister Marianne Giesel is guiding 34 students in a class for beginners. A veteran of 44 years in the classroom, Sister Marianne speaks simply, but with maximum respect. She realizes how intelligent her students are and admires them for what they are trying to learn. The class recites the pledge of allegiance, memorizes the 13 colonies and drills in vocabulary and grammar. Sister Marianne uses student names to help the whole class learn to spell, which sparks enthusiasm.
"By the end, they become friends," says Sister Joyce Barsotti, a member of the Sisters' leadership council. "You can see the relationships form."
In a more advanced classroom, students are laughing as they learn what "PBJ" means.
The program, taught by the Sisters and lay collaborators, offers official courses in English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and General Educational Development (GED).
"These classes are so good," says advanced student Maria Elena Rosas, a 41-year-old member of St. Anthony Parish in Tigard. Obtaining a GED is a longtime dream for this food service worker who hopes someday to work in a bank.
The student body is 90 percent Latino, with members from Mexico, Central America and South America. Others from India, Vietnam, China and Thailand. Many live at a nearby apartment complex, where word has spread. Enrollment is up 50 percent from last year.
“The Sisters of St. Mary are aware of the challenges facing immigrants today," says Sister Catherine Hertel, a longtime teacher who coordinates the programs. She points out that when the Sisters came to Oregon in the 1880s, they, too, were immigrants.
Students gather in eight basement rooms of the 1930 motherhouse. The space became available when the new grade school opened in fall 2011. Though some ESOL classes have exceeded 30 students at the start of the year, recruitment of new teachers is pushing class size down to 20 or 25.
Teachers include a handful of sisters and some lay volunteers, including a former policeman, retired faculty and current school aides.
"They are going to find good jobs or continue on to college," says Rolando Moreno, a 38-year-old member of St. Cecilia Parish here who teaches math to the GED students. Moreno once sat in their place. He says his Catholic faith motivated him. Teachers also gave him confidence.
"They told me some day, I would be teaching," Moreno says. "That got into my heart."
Students pay $10 tuition for the entire year — 60 classes. They contribute $25 toward books. Benefactors step up to help the Sisters keep the classes going. The Sisters are finding that the lessons extend beyond the students themselves. If they are parents, these adults are better able to help their children with homework and form alliances with teachers.
"Plus, they model persistence and goal-setting to their own children," Sister Catherine says.
One energetic man doubling up in the GED and English classes told Sister Catherine that he felt motivated by his high-school-age sons. He wanted them to be proud of him.
Students get better at writing resumes. They express themselves better at interviews. Employers treasure workers who become bilingual and who can then act as translators for other employees or customers.
The whole community benefits, says Sister Catherine, when immigrants improve their prospects. The families need less help and new workers mean a larger tax base.
During their 2010 community-wide meetings, the Sisters decided to "journey in solidarity with the vulnerable, particularly the immigrant."