Stimulus Saves English Literacy Classes for Immigrants in Massachusetts

Editor’s Note: This story was written as part of a New America Media Stimulus Watch Fellowship, funded with a grant from the Open Society Institute. It originally appeared in The Brazilian Journal.

By Marcony Almeida, The Brazilian Journal/New America Media

One of the most exciting times in Claudete Alcântara’s week used to be when she went to school to learn English. A Brazilian immigrant, Alcântara counted on an English literacy program in Everett, a city in northern Massachusetts, to learn the language and to improve her job prospects.

But her excitement faded when the program announced that her classes would come to an end because of cuts in the state and municipal budget. The Everett Literacy Program –in its 25th year providing English for Students of Other Languages (ESOL)– receives funding from the state, the city and private donations. It is one of the largest ESOL programs for immigrant adults in the state.

Claudete Alcântara

Claudete Alcântara

Alcântara came to the United States nine years ago and since then has been working in the kitchen of a famous restaurant in downtown Boston. Her manager promised to make her the restaurant manager once she could speak English fluently.

“I love what I do but I get shy and disturbed when my co-workers ask me to repeat a word that I did not pronounce correctly”, she said. “I do a better job than many Americans here, but my English skills prevent me from having a better position at the restaurant. I’m studying hard to get there.”

Brazilian immigrants represent 20 percent of new residents in the Commonwealth since 2000, according to the think-tank MassINC, and Everett is home to one of the largest concentrations of Brazilians in the state. The city has about 40,000 residents and at least 22 percent of its population is foreign born – almost double the percentage in the rest of the state.

But the good days for Alcântara have returned. The Everett Literacy Program has received a grant of $50,000 from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and she is one of 54 students who have now returned to class.

“When we got the news that we would be able to bring those 54 students and rehire teacher thanks to this grant, it was like an unexpected miracle happening,” said Meg English, the program’s coordinator. The money was granted to the program through Tri-Cap, the Tri-City Community Action Program, a multi-service anti-poverty agency serving the cities of Malden, Medford, Everett and surrounding communities.

The grant was a relief to a literacy program that has been striving to teach English to immigrants for years. Applying for state, private and federal grants is English’s main strategy to keep her program alive. In the past, the student wait list approached 500, but it has declined to 310. She suspects this is due to a recent wave of immigrants moving back to their home country and to long waits that discourage people.

“The Recovery grant could not eliminate our wait list, but at least it helped not to increase the numbers and to keep two classes running that otherwise we would have to shut down,” said English.

President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) on February 17, 2009. In anticipation of a national recovery effort, Gov. Deval Patrick began preparing Massachusetts to receive an infusion of funds in December 2009. He created Federal Stimulus Mobilization Task Forces, led by Lt. Gov. Tim Murray, to identify infrastructure needs.

Statewide, 16,935 immigrant adults are on the wait list to learn English. Claudia Green, director of Workforce Development and English For New Bostonians Initiative, a project launched by the city of Boston to help newcomers learn English, says that few cities across the state with a large concentration of immigrants have received grants from ARRA for their ESOL programs, but the wait list remains static because these grants were only able to keep current programs running and curb the increase of students on the wait list.

“It’s great when you receive a grant to eliminate the wait list,” said Green, “but even when these resources help to save current programs from being eliminated –or at least not increase the number of people waiting for classes – it’s a good thing, too.”

In Everett, the public school system also benefited from stimulus money, and was able to save teachers’ jobs and avoid charging fees to students with some of the $3.7 million stimulus funds the Department of Education received. “Thanks to the stimulus, this year school lunches will continue to be offered in all schools at all grade levels for students. There will be no fees for students who want to participate in any activity in the Everett Public Schools. Our special needs programs remain intact and in place, including transportation, and 20 teachers were saved from layoffs,” said superintendent Frederick F. Foresteire.

The governor claimed that ARRA funding has created or retained 23,533 jobs in Massachusetts since the start of the 27-month program in February. Based on data submitted to the federal government, Massachusetts state agencies received approximately $4 billion in recovery money through September 30, 2009. Of these funds, state agencies have already invested nearly $1.9 billion, including $1.3 billion in direct benefits, such as unemployment insurance and Medicaid, and over $500 million on other programs and infrastructure projects to create or retain jobs and fund essential services.

However, recent reports in the Boston Globe state that only a fraction of federal stimulus money has been spent so far. Massachusetts organizations have been awarded $3.9 billion in stimulus contracts, loans, and grants. But as of October, Bay State government agencies and companies had received only $622 million and have spent almost all of it, according to data from the government agency charged with tracking stimulus funding. The findings could explain why unemployment continued to climb in the state, hitting 9.3 percent in September.

“Most of the money has not yet been used in a way that could create or save jobs,’’ said Michael Balsam of Onvia Inc., a Seattle company that tracks government contracts. Nationwide, Balsam estimated, only one quarter of stimulus money has “actually left Washington, D.C.’’ But Massachusetts officials told the Globe that the slow pace of funding is due partly to applicants having to win competitive grants, which is a time-consuming process.

And even after winning a stimulus award, state officials noted, there are other chores that have to be done before the money can be spent. These include deciding what projects to fund, putting contracts out to bid and complying with other regulations needed to obtain the money.

Massachusetts has spent $508 million of the $1.9 billion handled through state agencies that has been awarded. But state officials acknowledge that the bulk of the jobs figures they reported to the U.S. government were estimates, rather than exact tallies. For instance, the state estimated it saved nearly 6,000 jobs by disbursing $412 million in education grants to local school districts to offset cuts in state aid. But instead of tracking payments to individual employees, the state asked school districts what portion of the money was used for salaries, then calculated how many jobs that money would support based on a statewide average salary for teachers.

Regardless of the delay, Foresteire and English believe that the stimulus has prevented an even worse nightmare due to the economic downturn that has also affected their programs.

“My concern now is what is next after the stimulus money is over,” said English. “I guess I need to find other alternatives and hope for a better economic recovery.”

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