Local elementary school teaches English to parents who face language barrier

CHARLOTTE — Hidden Valley Elementary in northeast Charlotte boasts one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools most diverse student bodies.

Of the school’s 940 students, more than two-thirds are Hispanic.

A unique program launched at the school is focusing on those students’ parents with the goal of closing the language gap that can create difficulties with even the most ordinary tasks.

“Sometimes parents call me and say, ‘I need a medicine for my kids, but the pharmacy don’t understand me. Can you help with that?’” said Vanessa Ortega, family advocate at Hidden Valley Elementary.

Ortega was in a similar spot just four years ago. She immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic where she previously worked for more than a decade as a lawyer.

“When I came here, it was like, ‘Oh my God, the language is a barrier,’” she told Channel 9′s education reporter Jonathan Lowe.

Ortega enrolled in English as a second language (ESL) classes through Central Piedmont Community College that helped her overcome the hurdle.

Now, Ortega and Michael Hayes, a multilingual teacher at Hidden Valley Elementary, have teamed up to launch an ESL program in partnership with CPCC. These classes aren’t focused on students, but are instead for their parents.

“Everyday tasks that we take for granted being native speakers, we have families who struggle with those, especially if they’re here without family,” Hayes said. “Our thought was, ‘Why not offer a means of supporting them getting past a language barrier?’”

For two hours, twice a week, over 16 weeks, Spanish-speaking parents can take either a beginner or intermediate level class after their kids’ school day ends.

Hayes said the courses cover a wide-variety of instruction, including vocabulary, speech, reading and writing.

“I know how you can change lives with only one person,” Ortega said. “They speak better, they feel better, you change the whole family.”

She knows from her own experience -- bridging that language divide is a confidence builder.

“They are not afraid,” Ortega said. “Sometimes you know certain words, but you are too afraid to try. Now that they come to class, they try.”

The parents’ growth then trickles down to the students.

“You change the dynamic, they feel confident,” Ortega said. “It’s a role model for the kids. ... The connection with parents (that) feel engaged with the school, it’s not only about the curriculum, it’s that you are part of the school, parents are a part of the school.”

The current session for parents wraps up in May. Ortega said they have a growing waitlist for the next round.

The school also plans to host a career fair to help take these adults to the next level once they graduate from the literacy program.

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Jonathan Lowe

Jonathan Lowe, wsoctv.com

Jonathan is a reporter for WSOC-TV.