Waukegan library breaks down barriers with Spanish GED

By Judy Masterson jmasterson [at] stmedianetwork [dot] com January 18, 2014 7:24PM
For the Lake County News-Sun


Gloria Velez kept hearing from co-workers at the Waukegan assembly plant where she works that she had to get her GED.

“What’s a GED?” the recent immigrant from Colombia wondered.

In one visit last year to the Waukegan Public Library, Velez, 47, the mother of a teenage son, learned that the high school equivalency diploma meant better prospects. She quickly enrolled in the library’s Spanish GED preparation course and within six weeks, she had passed all five GED subject exams in addition to a test on the U.S. government.

How did she do it?

“The instructors, my commitment and a desire to keep learning,” said Velez through a translator.

In her pre-GED life, Velez would have been satisfied with a job as a personal assistant. But now she intends to pursue a bachelor’s degree in social work. She is also volunteering as a Waukegan library “promotoras ambassador” or outreach worker.

“The work the library is doing to put people on the path to literacy is my passion,” said Velez, who recruited her sister, who has lived in the U.S. for many years, and six co-workers for Spanish GED.

Thirty-two Spanish speakers earned a GED after studying at the library last year. Another 37, of the 98 enrolled in 2013, passed at least three of the required exams. Nearly 100 people were placed on a waiting list.

The library, which last year received the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, started the volunteer-led class after hearing from a growing number of patrons who said they had failed to pass a GED pre-test administered by the College of Lake County. Some came in search of the four-inch thick GED test prep book, but didn’t know “how to even begin to study,” according to Carmen Patlan, library manager of community engagement and Spanish literacy services.

“If they didn’t pass that test, a lot of them simply gave up,” Patlan said.

The library’s Spanish GED is structured to include educational levels from second through eighth grade. Some students are barely literate in their native language.

Volunteer GED and English as a Second Language instructor Fabio Gomez, a middle-school teacher in his native El Salvador who also obtained a GED, said it’s a struggle to teach to so many levels.

“But there’s no other place that can help these people,” Gomez said. “They know what they need: to finish the GED and learn English.”

Students enrolled in CLC Spanish GED numbered 247 in 2013. Raiana Mearns, CLC dean of adult basic education GED and ESL, said the college can’t enroll students until they test at the ninth-grade level − a requirement of state grant funding.

“We’re very happy to serve them − at that level,” Mearns said.

But that leaves a lot of people behind, especially in areas like Waukegan where 45 percent of Latinos have less than a high school education “not because they don’t have the skills to succeed,” Patlan said, “but because they struggle every day with cultural barriers that include language, health, and transportation.

“If we can break down barriers that keep them from succeeding, the ripple effect on families and our community − from better-paying jobs and promotions to enrolling in college classes to the help they can give to their children in school − is huge,” Patlan said. “Every student who walks through our doors is investing in their future and we are excited to be a part of that.”