As soon as Miguel Marcamonte gets off work, he races through rush-hour traffic to pick up his wife, Laidy, at her job. She often jumps into the car before it comes to a stop. And they always manage to make it to their class in English as a second language at Belmont adult school just before the bell rings.
Miguel and Laidy Marcamonte are representative of the 252,000 adult students in the Los Angeles Unified School District who attend ESL programs. Teachers and administrators say these students, many of whom work eight to 10 hours a day, are dedicated enough to attend 2 1/2-hour classes four nights a week.
"I think it is important that we learn English in order to become citizens of this country, to communicate with everyone and to improve our economic condition," said Miguel Marcamonte, one of the 350,000 refugees from El Salvador who now live in Los Angeles.
The Marcamontes are learning English in hopes of satisfying the Immigration and Naturalization Service's requirements for amnesty. In order to qualify for permanent residency, amnesty applicants must, among other stipulations, attend a minimum of 40 hours of amnesty classes (a combination of ESL, U.S. history and government) or pass a test in English on the history and government of the United States.
"One of the things we've learned with our amnesty students is that they are working at one or sometimes two jobs and they squeeze in" their classes, said Domingo Rodriguez, administrator of ESL, amnesty, Spanish literacy and citizenship programs in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
"But we have a large retention rate. The proof is the large number who stay in the program from the first day until the last day."
Along with the 12,000 other primarily Spanish-speaking ESL students at Belmont, the Marcamontes learn language skills such as reading, grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation by studying U.S. history and government.
After paying a registration fee of 50 cents and taking an oral placement exam, ESL adult students are placed in one of six class levels, said Greta Kojima, an ESL adult programs adviser for the district. When a student completes Level 6, he or she is tested for proficiency at a seventh-grade reading and writing level.
All ESL classes have a core curriculum, but teachers try to develop methods that stimulate students and make learning enjoyable.
English is used almost exclusively in the classrooms in order to immerse the students in the language and allow them to learn "life skills necessary to survive in an English-speaking environment," said Alma Gamez, a district ESL adult programs consultant.
Alice Fine, who teaches at Belmont, said research indicates that a student who is immersed in a language learns to speak it "in the same manner as a baby," listening, observing and analyzing the information. Later, the student connects the sounds to words and ideas, Fine said.
Domingo Herrera, an ESL student, said he agrees with the immersion method because it forces the student to learn English.
"When you first study English, it's scary because you don't understand anything, but you try and the teacher helps you comprehend," said Herrera, a former student body president of Belmont Community Adult School at Belmont High School. "It becomes easier when you come to understand a few words. I think it is very easy for the teacher, but complicated for the student."
Some students quit because they find English too difficult to understand, Herrera said.
Juan Francisco Lara, director of educational programs for the Tomas Rivera Center, a Latino research center in Claremont, said that in the ideal situation students would have ESL teachers who also speak the students' primary language. But there is a major shortage of bilingual teachers, Lara said.
The California Assn. of Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages sponsors an annual conference designed to present new ESL curriculum ideas and teaching techniques, said Katherine Decker, the group's spokeswoman. The association expects 1,500 teachers at its next conference Nov. 3 at Cal State Northridge.
At Belmont, Fine, herself an ESL graduate, uses art to help her students learn. "Drawing is very good for pronunciation, because it uses the right side of the brain. So the theory is if you bring in activities that will get you into that side, you can develop intonation and rhythm with greater ease," said Fine, who emigrated from Czechoslovakia when she was 18. "It is also better than just showing them a picture, because by having them draw, it reinforces the word in their minds."