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Learning Center Grows to Fill Community Needs

December 19, 1991|ALICIA DI RADO | SPECIAL TO NUESTRO TIEMPO

Sister Jennie Lechtenberg watched a young man walk hurriedly past her, books under his arm. She tapped her watch and smiled as he slipped quietly into a newly painted portable classroom.

"How often do you see students rushing to class like that at any other school?" the nun asked. "PUENTE students are here because they want to be here."

The PUENTE Learning Center in Boyle Heights offers a variety of educational opportunities for children, adolescents and adults. Staff members teach basic Spanish reading and writing, English as a second language, computer skills and other subjects, using 85 computers and resources donated by IBM, Citibank, Times Mirror Co. and other sponsors.

Only seven months ago, however, PUENTE faced an uncertain future. Knowing that the school had outgrown its old Boyle Heights home and was about to lose its lease, Lechtenberg set out to find a new site. When a potential space fell through at the last minute, PUENTE was homeless.

Three days later the Richard and Jill Riordan Foundation donated an empty lot at 501 S. Boyle Ave. to the school. PUENTE, which stands for People United to Enrich the Neighborhood Through Education, had a base, but classrooms had to be built on the site in time for courses that were starting in three months.

After a planning stage, workers put in electricity, telephones, plumbing and installed portable classrooms and an office in 3 1/2 weeks.

Hundreds began courses in mid-August, and the center now serves 900 students, primarily of Mexican descent.

These developments are staggering for Lechtenberg, who began PUENTE six years ago with one aide and 65 students. "We started with children, and then saw that their parents needed education too," she said. With a few computers, teachers began offering free Spanish and English literacy classes for adults.

As word of the program spread, students of all ages flocked to the center, and courses and services were added to accommodate them. "PUENTE has grown from the needs of the community," said Lechtenberg, who has worked in the area since 1969. "The community wants education. . . .PUENTE is a response to this desire and determination."

Instructor Luis Marquez agreed, recalling a former PUENTE student who, at first, refused to spend more time away from his job to learn English. "He ended up getting his high school diploma," Marquez said. "Now he's starting college at East L.A."

"Success stories are just now starting to come out," he added.

"I started studying English here three days after I arrived in this country," said Maria Casillas, a 22-year old PUENTE student. She immigrated with her mother from Nayarit, a state in western Mexico.

"I'd like to learn English," she said, "so that I can work and be a success, and give a little something back to my mother, who has done so much for me."

An unexpected benefit of the PUENTE program is cooperation and encouragement among students of different generations. "Kids are seeing adults coming because they want to, which makes the kids see education as important," Lechtenberg said.

A larger, permanent structure may be built on the site in two to three years, but staffers hope to serve between 1,200 and 1,500 students in current facilities. "I prefer to think in quality, though, not numbers," Lechtenberg said.

"If we can get trailers (portable classrooms) in 3 1/2 weeks," she added with a smile, "we can have a building in three years."

ALICIA DI RADO / For The Times

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