A Language Haven in Baltimore

For young newcomers, the first step to becoming American is learning English.

By Jesse Chase-Lubitz, a freelance journalist and was a 2019-2020 Henry Luce Foundation Scholar at the Japan Times.
Anthony, the winner of last year’s best attendance award at the Esperanza Center, reads a Sidekicks comic at the end of a summer program day in August.
Anthony, the winner of last year’s best attendance award at the Esperanza Center, reads a Sidekicks comic at the end of a summer program day in August. Jesse Chase-Lubitz/Foreign Policy

BALTIMORE — On June 29, 1987, Jermin Laviera attended her first English-language lesson still wearing her wedding dress. Though she had just arrived in Baltimore from Venezuela eight days earlier, acquiring the ability to communicate in her new home was so important that she went straight from her nuptials to class. Laviera still has a photograph of her 28-year-old self in the white patterned gown, a look of exhilaration in her brown eyes as she proudly holds her most valued treasure from that day. “Not a ring,” she says with a smile. “It was a book.”

Thirty years later, Laviera manages a desk in the lobby of the Esperanza Center in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore — the place where she took her first English class. She has long since retired her student status and now works in the center’s client services department. Cutout snowflakes float suspended from the classrooms’ ceilings, board games sit atop desks, and a “Stop Profiling Muslims” poster hangs on the wall. Up to 60 middle and high school-aged immigrants and refugees come here to learn the language of their adopted country.

Formerly known as the Hispanic Apostolate, the center started offering English-language classes to Cuban immigrants in 1963 and has since expanded — now supplying legal, medical, and other services. And though for many years Esperanza offered only adult ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) courses, in 2015 it launched a youth program in response to the surge the year before in unaccompanied minors crossing the southern U.S. border.

“[These kids were] totally flooding the public school system that was not prepared for that many ELLs [English-language learners],” says Brianna Melgar, the center’s youth ESOL program coordinator.

Title III of the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by former President Barack Obama in 2015, requires all public schools in the United States to provide language assistance to students who need it. However, each state has the flexibility to execute that requirement as it deems fit. “ESL [English as a Second Language] courses vary considerably from state to state,” says Victoria Palmer, a public affairs specialist at the Administration for Children & Families.

Public school ESOL classes are funded at the federal, state, and local levels — which means the programs are vulnerable to cuts in federal ESOL and immigrant education funds. These are disbursed to states according to immigrant population numbers. Since January, the Donald Trump administration has slashed the U.S. refugee intake from a proposed 110,000 to 50,000 in 2017. With fewer refugees, some wonder what will happen to the money allocated to teaching them English. Over the next decade, the administration also plans to reduce the number of legal immigrants by half.

But the Esperanza Center operates outside of that capricious system: Funding from private donors and the Catholic Charities network shields its ESOL program from policy shifts, and decision-makers work on-site, accessible to students and aware of their needs.

Esperanza’s flexibility allows it to provide English-language classes for students who couldn’t otherwise access them. Young immigrants might be working for pay when they first arrive or have parents who are afraid to enroll them in school for fear of deportation. Many arrive in the summer and must wait months to enter a classroom.

Odai, a 14-year-old Syrian boy who wears an “NY”-embossed hat as we speak in a small office at the Esperanza Center, found himself in that position when, after a four-year stay in Jordan, he came to Baltimore during the summer of 2016. “When we come, the school has not started. So we just sat in home because I don’t know the places or the stuff [to do]. I don’t know English,” he says.

For immigrant students, English-language skills unlock the gates to America’s meritocracy. “To be unable to communicate in the language around you beyond the level of counting and buying things at the supermarket is to experience life linguistically as a 2-year-old,” says John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. “It’s lonely, embarrassing, and even dangerous — you’re living as, quite literally, an alien.”

And while the federal government provides resources to adult ELLs — like an interactive map of all the adult education resources and contacts by state and a national professional learning community and database — children are directed to the public school system for their language learning and educational needs. “By and large, we don’t, as a country, have programs directed at the K-12 level,” says Michael Fix, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute. And private programs like the ones offered to kids at Esperanza are rare in the United States. There are two other programs similar to Esperanza in Baltimore, one of which only runs in the spring during soccer season.

Luis, a 16-year-old Mexican boy who came to the United States in 2016, explains the difference between his school, Baltimore’s Patterson High School, and Esperanza. “You just don’t learn,” he says. “There are a lot more students.… You can’t make friends, [with] how they fight and everything.”

Currently, Esperanza’s ESOL program is overenrolled: Out of the almost 300 refugees between the ages of 5 and 17 resettled in the city of Baltimore alone last year, Esperanza can host a mere 60 and receives regular requests to open centers elsewhere in Maryland.

It has been 30 years since that June day when Laviera wedded both Esperanza and her husband. The center can’t reach every kid who needs it, but Laviera’s experience shows that it can make a lasting impact on the students it does help.

I ask six students — from Senegal, Syria, Honduras, Mexico, and El Salvador — what they want to be when they grow up. “I will be a doctor,” “I will be a software engineer,” “I will be a lawyer,” they reply with conviction. When I ask Merary why she wants to be a lawyer, the 11-year-old Honduran girl replies, “Because I like to help people from other countries. Like the ones that are here.”

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of FP magazine.

Jesse Chase-Lubitz is a freelance journalist and was a 2019-2020 Henry Luce Foundation Scholar at the Japan Times. Twitter: @jesschaselubitz