Fairhill: Breaking Down Language Barriers

ESL students preparing for the start of class.

ESL students preparing for the start of class.
ESL students prepare for the start of class.

On a cold and overcast Thursday morning, a group of dedicated students file into a drafty gymnasium on the fourth floor of The Lighthouse, a community organization on Lehigh Avenue. On one side of the gym, basketballs lie scattered across the floor, and a few of the students pick them up and haphazardly toss them into the hanging basketball nets. Other students, meanwhile, head straight to the wooden desks aligned neatly in front of a small classroom chalkboard, claiming one of the available metal chairs and placing their books on a desk in preparation for the start of class.

Nelson Cabrera, 57, enters the gymnasium-turned-classroom at precisely 9 a.m., quickly greeting the now-silent class of students before picking up a piece of chalk and beginning the day’s lesson.

The class is an English as a Second Language (ESL) course, and Cabrera has quite a bit of experience in the field. Cabrera came to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1984 and began his career as an English teacher mere months after settling in New York. His sister was living in Northeast Philadelphia, and in 1999, she convinced him to move into the Philadelphia area. He eventually settled near The Lighthouse in Fairhill and continued his work as an ESL teacher. “I’ve been doing this on and off for 25 years,” says Cabrera, a true veteran of the craft.

Teaching English as a second language is an occupation that will always be in demand in Fairhill because 47 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home, and 22 percent of those residents know do not know English well. The overwhelming majority of these non-English language speakers are fluent in Spanish, which is not surprising considering the fact that 57 percent of Fairhill residents described themselves as Hispanic or Latino in the 2000 census, which is much higher than the citywide average of 11 percent.

These demographics are reflected in Cabrera’s ESL class, as a majority of the 11 students come from Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.

Nelson Cabrera stands in front of classroom chalkboard
Nelson Cabrera stands in front of the classroom chalkboard.

As part of the class curriculum, Cabrera spends a few minutes going around the classroom and asking students in English to describe their backgrounds.

“Pedro,” says Cabrera, turning to a middle-aged man in the second row, wearing a white Central jacket,
“Are you married”

“Yes,” replies Pedro, and Cabrera presses further, asking Pedro if he has any children. “Six children,” says Pedro, “Three boys and three girls.” Cabrera continues his questioning, and Pedro slowly begins describing his life as best as his knowledge of English will allow. It turns out that Pedro is from the Dominican Republic, and his wife, Josephina, and the rest of the family still live there, while Pedro lives alone in the Fairhill section of Philadelphia. For some, this separation from family would seem like the most daunting of challenges, but Pedro remains upbeat, focusing on the issue at hand: mastering the dominant language of the city he now calls home.

Another student in the class is Julieto, a 19-year-old man from Brazil. When Cabrera asks him in English about his current state of mind, Julieto simply smiles and says, “Tired.” He is tired for good reason. The teenager attends Cabrera’s class, which takes place Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., and then continues his day by working an eight-hour shift at his job. Cabrera seems to already understand Julieto’s situation, nodding his head and giving him a warm smile.

“Usually there are 15 to 20 students per class,” explains Cabrera, “but sometimes students have to miss class for certain reasons. I recently had a girl call me to say that she was pregnant and would miss a few classes.” Cabrera begins class each morning by taking attendance, but he also keeps each student’s situation in mind.

Some of the ESL students pose together for a picture.
Some of the ESL students pose together for a picture.

The class is actually a branch of the Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), though the course is not for credit. The Lighthouse, an organization that has been providing educational, recreational and economic improvement programs to the North Philadelphia community since its inception in 1893, provides a room for the course, in the fourth-floor gymnasium overlooking the small neighborhoods of Fairhill and adjacent Kensington. For the price of $70, students receive a regular semester’s worth of classes, along with a textbook and a homework book. “[The class] draws mostly neighborhood kids,” explains Cabrera, “so it’s good for the community.”

Bakary Kante, 25, moved eight years ago to Philadelphia from Mali and has enjoyed the opportunity to take courses at the neighborhood center. “In a lot of other [ESL] classes, I feel like there are always new students coming in, and so we always have to start from the beginning,” says Kante, “In here, it’s the same students each week, so we learn together.”

Kante, who is fluent in both French and Mandego, is a carwash manager who also buys and flips houses as a side job. But his true passion, and the reason he chose to take an ESL course, is a company called 5Linx. “I‘ve started an international telecommunications business called 5Linx,” says Kante, an entrepreneur who carries his business card with him wherever he goes, “We offer phones, satellite television, cell phone plans, internet.”

Kante speaks English at a particularly high level compared to many of his classmates, but he hopes that mastering the language will help him in launching his new company. “I do what I can do, so that people are comfortable talking to me. I also use the computer every night and bring what I learn into class.” Kante has seen a great deal of improvement in himself since the start of class. “When I come to class I can see the things I am doing incorrectly,” he says, even though he began Cabrera’s course in September.

Kante’s particular class is considered “Level 1,” which is the starting point in a three-level learning process that typically takes approximately eight months overall. Classes are offered in the fall and spring, and typically last approximately two and one-half months–the typical lifespan of a college course.

For more information regarding The Lighthouse’s ESL classes, visit ccp.edu.

For more information on Bakary Kante’s company, 5Linx, please visit 5Linx.

1 Comment

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