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O.C. Plan Tries to Bring English Home

Santa Ana's Chamber of Commerce aims to raise language skills of 50,000 adults with local classes.

November 05, 2005|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

In Santa Ana, which has one of the highest concentration of Spanish-speakers in the nation, the Chamber of Commerce is embarking on an ambitious effort to improve the English skills of city residents.

"If you don't have English competency, your chances to be self sufficient and live [well] in our society are very difficult," said Michael Metzler, president of the business group.

By July, the chamber expects to begin bringing more than 500 instructors into neighborhoods to teach English to at least 50,000 adults over the next five years.

Dubbing the program a "Marshall plan for English," the chamber likens English Works to the massive U.S. effort to help rebuild Europe after World War II.

English Works is estimated to cost $20 million; the business group has collected $400,000 so far.

It is just one of several major chamber projects underway.

The chamber is also raising $750,000 to open a vocational technology school -- possibly in conjunction with the Santa Ana school system -- in the fall of 2007.

And the group is exploring ideas on improving housing in a city where 20% of residences are considered substandard.

"We not only want to help our people, but these are things that just make good business sense," Metzler said.

These are not unattainable dreams, officials said. The chamber has already raised $900,000 from 65 corporations this year to support several projects, including $200,000 for English Works. Among the contributors are some of the city's large employers, such as First American Corp., Crevier BMW and technology products distributor Ingram Micro Inc.

"Ingram Micro values the power of education and we support the chamber's effort to enhance the future of this dynamic vibrant community," said Ingram spokesperson Chris Kelly.

English Works is getting positive reviews.

"We have so many English learners that anything that the business community and other partners can do to promote English is to be commended," said City Councilman Jose Solorio. The chamber hopes the city will make a major contribution as well.

English Works seeks to make residents English proficient, not necessarily fluent. The chamber has been crafting the program for months with help from the Rancho Santiago Community College District, which gave $200,000 for the effort.

The chamber estimates that $20 million will be needed to make the 50,000 students proficient. The group hopes to raise money from local businesses, corporations and garner state and federal funds.

Some of the English classes might be offered through existing programs, which would cover some of the costs, officials said.

The program is expected to reach 2,500 students in 2006, 7,500 in 2007, and 15,000 in 2008 and 25,000 in 2009. The business group hopes to make the classes free to the students.

The effort is not just good for the city's thousands of immigrants, organizers say, but also is invaluable for businesses.

Metzler says Orange County businesses are scrambling to find enough English-speaking workers in their diverse communities.

According to the 2000 census, residents in more than half of the households in Anaheim, Santa Ana, Stanton and Westminster say they speak a language other than English at home. In Santa Ana, it's 79% of the residents compared with 42% in Orange County and 39% statewide. About 15% of those 18 to 64 years old in Santa Ana speak no English -- nearly four times the California average.

Joe Mutter, a sales manager at TDI Custom Packing in Santa Ana, said his company would benefit from the chamber's campaign. The firm manufactures plastic bags.

It would be hard to communicate with many of the company's employees without his long-time bilingual foreman, he said.

"We have to communicate through [the foreman]," Mutter said. "It would be easier, and probably more efficient, if we could just say, 'Hey, can you do it this way?' "

Efforts to increase English proficiency are not new.

All kinds of English classes abound at colleges, community centers, schools and churches. This fall, 19,139 students are enrolled in English classes at Santa Ana College and Santiago Canyon College in Orange, both of which are in the Rancho Santiago Community College District.

The classes offered at those colleges will benefit from the chamber campaign, which would expand existing college programs, said District Chancellor Eddie Hernandez Jr.

"It's becoming harder and harder for businesses in central Orange County to find qualified workers. It's important that we do the best we can to meet that need," Hernandez said.

Part of the problem, Metzler said, is that students lack time, child care and transportation to get to classes.

The chamber wants teachers to go into the neighborhoods to offer the English classes.

Students who travel to take English classes say they know they are a minority.

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