Esperanza Rodriguez received only two years of elementary schooling in her native Mexico. Now, with 42 co-workers, she hopes to earn a high school diploma through a novel outreach program offered by the South Bay Union High School District.
Since February, the district has been sending teachers four days a week to Tri-Lite Manufacturing Co., in the Los Angeles city strip east of Torrance, to instruct workers after their shift ends at 4:30 p.m. District and county school officials said they are not aware of any other programs in the Los Angeles area that offer basic education in the workplace.
"It's very important to me to be able to speak English well," Rodriguez said last week with the aid of an interpreter as she sat with other student workers around a table in the company's conference room. "I want to learn everything I can about the American Constitution and its history."
Irene Jimenez, also a Mexican immigrant and one of only a few Tri-Lite adult students who went through high school in their native countries, said she wanted her diploma to show that she had become good in math.
An assembly line worker at the plant, which manufacturers lighting fixtures, Jimenez said she hopes that her math skills will eventually qualify her for promotion.
"There is a tremendous eagerness among these people to improve their educational standing," said Ron Morrison, Tri-Lite's president. "Certainly that will help put them on paths of upward mobility in the work place."
One of the benefits for the company, he said, is that the South Bay Union program is "promoting self-esteem and the pride that comes with achievement. It adds another dimension to the basic employer-employee relationship and I can already see the results in terms of improved attitudes and motivation in the shop."
Company controller Bea Lopez, who is credited by Morrison with launching the program after an initial contact by the school district, said she often hears the workers discussing their school lessons during lunchtime.
"They urge each other to talk in English, even though that's still hard for many of them," she said.
The excitement may increase when the workers learn that those who earn high school diplomas will get a weekend vacation for two in Las Vegas, sponsored by the company and their union. The bonus has not been announced.
Lopez said Pablo Segura, a 28-year-old immigrant from El Salvador, is expected to be the first employee to qualify for the Las Vegas trip. He said he wants to go on to college after getting his high school diploma in a few months.
"Hey, if you don't have the education, what kind of a future can you expect to have in America?" Segura said in an interview.
John Eden, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers that represents about 100 factory employees at Tri-Lite, said his union hopes to find other "enlightened employers" who will sponsor on-site educational programs.
Frances Giffin, director of South Bay Union's independent study program, said the Tri-Lite project grew out of the district's interest in getting more private companies directly involved in adult education.
But the idea of sending teachers to the workplace didn't come up until a district representative asked Tri-Lite officials if they had any workers who might be interested in taking home-study courses.
"Bea Lopez was enthusiastic from the beginning," Giffin said. "But there was some concern that many employees wouldn't be able to come over here for classes because of problems like transportation and baby-sitting. So Bea said, 'Why don't you send your teachers over here?' "
When Tri-Lite's workers responded strongly to proposals for an on-site program--nearly 50, or about a third of the factory work force, signed up at a union meeting--Giffin said, "We were impressed, and Dr. (Supt. Walter) Hale said, 'Go for it. We'll work out the details later.' "
Tri-Lite officials said they want to continue the program through the summer months. "It would be a shame to interrupt the excitement and interest that we have going here," Lopez said. "Our people don't want to take a vacation from learning."
A summer program may not be in the financial cards, said Deputy Supt. Ed King. "We'd love to do it," he said. "But state financial aid for a program like this ends with the school year in June and we're already having a tough time meeting the needs of the kids in our district, which is our main priority."
Vicki Apodaca, one of the teachers in the Tri-Lite project, said she would not allow a complete lapse during the summer months.