Custodian ESL program strengthens membership

Published on Wednesday, June 6, 2012

 Custodian ESL Program
The graduates, instructors, and office worker for the 10-week English as a second language program gathered for recognition by the Cherry Hill Board of Education on their graduation day.

Of the 125 cleaners who are members of the Cherry Hill Supportive Staff Association, nearly half speak Spanish as their first language. At a district in-service training day at the beginning of the school year, NJEA UniServ Field Rep Nancy Holmes noted that members were divided in two groups and placed in separate rooms while receiving identical information.

In one room the information was delivered in English, while in the other the director of Human Resources, Nancy Adrian, provided the information with the help of the district's Spanish-speaking translator.

“From this, an idea was born,” said Holmes. “What if the school board, the Cherry Hill Supportive Staff Association, and the Cherry Hill Education Association helped these staff members to speak English more fluently? What if we all worked together to help them navigate their way through their lives at work and as NJEA members?”

A collaborative effort

With support from the local associations and the board, the program came to fruition. Ten sessions were planned. Ninety minutes of each session was devoted to English-language instruction and 30 minutes were set aside for district and association information. Administrators provided training on board policies, and Holmes presented information on the value of NJEA membership and worker rights.

The district provided classroom space, Internet connections, and an English-language learner specialist. CHEA provided an additional ELL specialist, a translator, and an office position to facilitate understanding and paperwork. NJEA provides coffee and doughnuts each week, and funded a graduation celebration to at a board meeting when the program concluded in May.

One session included a lesson titled, “Workers' Compensation: What to Do and What Not to Do to Keep Yourself, and Your Job, Safe.”

“This program is important because it teaches us how to talk to people, and how to do a better job,” said Bienvenido Tavarez, a cleaner in the district. “We are communicating much better.”

CHEA members and Spanish teachers Inez Korff and Danielle DiRenzo provided the English language instruction.

“The cleaners say that they are very appreciative and grateful for the program,” DiRenzo said. “This collaborative effort makes them feel a part of a larger community.”

“There has been a steady flow of students every week,” Korff said. “They are very enthusiastic to learn. Having such a program makes the staff feel valued.”

“The custodians appreciate the value of membership to a larger organization,” said CHEA President Martin Sharofsky, who worked with Holmes and the Cherry Hill board and administration to create the program. “This helps to build more positive relationships between administration, NJEA members, community and students.”

Camden County Council of Education Associations President Kathie Howley appreciated the effort to reach out to educational support professionals (ESP).

“I wish more districts and associations would do this type of activity for the ESP staff,” Howley said. “As a support person I understand the importance of knowing that we are a part of a larger community.” In addition to county association leadership, Howley is a secretary at the Camden County Technical School in Gloucester Township.

A cultural and linguistic exchange

The language learning goes both ways and for the program both Holmes and NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Marie Blistan honed up their Spanish-speaking skills.

Blistan attended one of the classes on April 28 to talk to the cleaners about NJEA from the perspective of a statewide leader. She concluded her remarks in Spanish.

“Gracias por todo lo haces todos los dias en nuestras escuelas publicas y para nuestros hijos,” Blistan said. “Las escuelas publicas de Cherry Hill tiene una larga reputacion de algunas de nuestros mejores escuelas. Es debido a las personas trabajan en ellas. Usted, nuestro miembros!” (“Thank you for all for all that you do every day in our public schools and for our children. Cherry Hill public schools have a long reputation of being some of our finest schools. It is because of the the people who work in them. You, our members.)

During one session, a cleaner asked Holmes, “Do you work for the board of education?”

“No trabajo por la junta de las escuelas,” Holmes responded in Spanish. “Yo trabajo por ustedes!” (“I don’t work for the board of education. I work for you!”)

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