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Language Institute Facing Closure as Enrollment Drops


At the beginning of each session, the Cambria English Institute is like a Tower of Babel, a gathering place for students from around the world who are unable to utter even the simplest of English phrases.

With the help of dedicated teachers, hours of practice and gazing up at tenses and usage charts along a corridor dubbed the "Holy Wall," the students--Latin-American and Polish clergy, Japanese executives, Middle Eastern nobility, Korean engineers, diplomats and immigrants--gradually learn to speak English well.

But now, the Westlake-based nonprofit institute is on the verge of folding, its enrollment dropping because of a confluence of international events, domestic politics and the tarnished image of Los Angeles, said Fernando de la Pena, the institute's president. Enrollment has dwindled from about 330 in the early 1980s to 25 this year.

With foreign countries and organizations less willing to risk sending students to Los Angeles, the institute's cash flow has dropped precipitously. As a result, De la Pena is searching for $300,000 in grants, loans or donations to keep the institute going, possibly by opening a new branch in a less crime-ridden location in the Valley that could generate enough money to keep the Westlake site open.

"It's such a good dream, we don't want to give it up," De la Pena said.

As a cost-saving measure, De la Pena said he and his wife have been living off their savings for nearly three years. His staff of 25 has been volunteering without pay since April, and before that was on half-salary since last July.

Since it was established in 1978, Cambria has earned a reputation as a relatively inexpensive school ($490 per level, compared with about $950 at many private schools) where students can learn English quickly in a family-like atmosphere.

In 1989, the English-Speaking Union of the United States recognized Cambria as one of the top five schools in the country for teaching English as a Second Language. The organization promotes friendship and understanding among English speakers worldwide and administers travel grants, scholarships, book awards and information programs.

"I've been to many different language institutions, but I found this one has the best program," said student Chang Pyon, a Korean immigrant who has lived here for about 20 years but only found the "courage" to speak English after studying at Cambria.

Joel Partida, who also tried several schools since arriving from Mexico 20 years ago, found Cambria's program not only the most intensive, but also less expensive than others. "Anyone can learn in a month what it will take a year to learn somewhere else," he said. "They teach us the right way here."

Cambria uses its own books, written with explanations that are easier to understand than other texts, De la Pena said. The teachers are selected for their ability to "disarm students of their defenses and pessimism about learning English," he said.

The teachers don't use gimmicks; they just make sure each student understands each lesson before moving on, De la Pena said. Students progress through eight levels, studying six hours a day for seven months, compared to other programs that can take as long as 2 1/2 years.

Many students come directly from their countries to Cambria to learn English for their jobs at home or to continue their studies in the United States. Foreign schools and religious orders have a long-standing relationship with Cambria. Most advertising is by word-of-mouth.

Some students transfer from other ESL schools, and others are immigrants who see English as a first step toward a better job and a voice in their communities.

But the brick walls of its 70-year-old building, while providing a friendly space to learn, cannot insulate the school from outside events.

De la Pena said the first blow to enrollment occurred when relations between the United States and Iran deteriorated in the late 1970s and early 1980s, followed by instability in the Middle East and its negative effect on oil-dependent Latin American countries.

As a result, Middle Eastern students found it more difficult to get to the United States, and Latin American governments cut back on their scholarships, he said.

"Without the visa students (from other countries) we can't subsidize people who need to learn English in this community," he said. In the past, Cambria has accepted some immigrants who were unable to pay because without English they could be doomed to poverty, De la Pena said.

A lack of jobs and the impact of drugs on the neighborhood contributed to burglaries at the school, occasional assaults on students and a general feeling of insecurity among some students and staff, De la Pena said.

The final blow was last year's riots. "When the riots came, it was devastation time for us," De la Pena said. The next session started on May 12--less than two weeks after the riots ended--and enrollment dropped from 80 to 25.

"Some students wrote and said they just didn't want to come to Los Angeles," he said.

About the same time, De la Pena said, federal money available through the Immigration Reform and Control Act for teaching English to immigrants dried up, hurting Cambria, which has taught English to thousands of immigrants. Philanthropic organizations also turned their attention away from ESL programs, he said. "You can't begin to talk about job development (for immigrants) until you teach them English first," he said. "In the future we're going to pay for not realizing that."

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