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Community News: Mid-City

PICO-UNION : UCLA Program Aids Aspiring Teachers

October 02, 1994|LESLIE BERESTEIN

When Elisa Castaneda left her teaching job in Guatemala five years ago, she knew she would have to take a step back in order to move forward.

So when she and her family arrived in Los Angeles, she swallowed her pride, tucked her college degree away among her other keepsakes and went to work cleaning houses.

After two years, Castaneda landed a job as a teaching assistant in a church's bilingual child-care center, then worked her way up to teaching toddlers in Spanish.

But because her English was still not good enough to allow her to take state-mandated education courses and apply for a teaching license, she found her career options severely limited, even for Spanish-only jobs.

Then in April, 1993, Castaneda and more than 100 Pico-Union residents discovered a UCLA Extension program offering subsidized basic core classes in early childhood education--exclusively in Spanish--for area residents.

Funded through a grant, the pilot program--which began a year ago and held its first graduation ceremony at Angelica Lutheran Church last weekend--is identical to the school's English-language course of study, but with a tuition discounted to $35 from regular fees of as much as $225.

The recent graduates now meet state requirements for becoming child-care center teachers, and they may apply for the license that will allow them to teach at bilingual centers throughout the state.

"This program has helped me so much," said a beaming Castaneda in Spanish, exchanging hugs with proud relatives after the ceremony. "Before this, without English, I couldn't accomplish anything."

Now that she has cleared the first hurdle in furthering her teaching career, she said she plans to continue honing her English skills so that she can validate her Guatemalan college courses.

The UCLA Extension program was developed in response to a survey conducted by the city after the 1992 riots, which identified a need for child-care centers with bilingual and bicultural personnel in the Pico-Union area and training for residents so that they could qualify for those jobs.

When the riots broke out, Robert Lapiner, dean of continuing education at UCLA, was devising a strategy for community development. His staff heard about the Pico-Union survey and decided to incorporate a program that would target the needs identified.

"We shifted our emphasis a bit and asked the college to prepare a program we could shape to the cultural and language background of students who had the intellectual ability," Lapiner said.

After mapping out a planned course of study, the extension's department of education held an open house in April, 1993, at Angelica Lutheran to gauge community interest in the idea. More than 100 aspiring students showed up, informed solely through the church and by word of mouth.

During the next few months, Lapiner was able to secure a $35,000 grant from the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation to subsidize the program, as department staff worked to translate course material and hire two Spanish-speaking instructors. Forty applicants were selected, and classes began in September.

Since the only real prerequisite was that they live in the Pico-Union area, the applicants selected came from diverse backgrounds and levels of education.

"At least five of them were housewives," said Chris Peralta, one of the instructors who teaches early childhood education at East Los Angeles College. "Some cleaned houses. Others were teachers in their own countries, but were working as teaching assistants here because they could not take the classes that would enable them to step up to teacher status, since their English skills were not good enough."

For one year, the students--most of whom have families--would rise early each Saturday and spend the day in class in a back room of the church, leaving their children in the care of spouses, relatives and friends.

"My 6-year-old daughter was crying so hard one day, my husband ended up having to bring her to me in class," said Rebeca Pineda, a homemaker who hopes to become a teacher. "It was really difficult sometimes. It was a sacrifice."

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