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New immigrants gain knowledge with programs at Waukegan library

Waukegan Public Library goes out community find out whnew immigrants need then offers those help including this conversational ESL class

Waukegan Public Library goes out in the community to find out what new immigrants need, then offers those help including this conversational ESL class, with 55 students! The award winning class has been nationally recognized and representatives will travel to Washington D.C. to talk about their success. Flash cards and visual learning cues help the students. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media

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Waukegan Public Library
recent awards

2013 Institute of Museum and Library Services National Medal

2013 American Library Association’s Upstart Innovation Award for Bus to Us

2012 ALA Marshall Cavendish Award for Early Learning Center

2012 Library Journal Library of the Year Honorable Mention

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Updated: July 3, 2013 2:34AM

The Waukegan Public Library will accept an award from First Lady Michelle Obama on May 8 for pushing the boundaries on what libraries do, including seeking out and teaching new immigrants like Malena Porcayo.

Until a few weeks ago, Porcayo, 38, had never in her life been to school. Now a student in the library’s eight-week Conversational ESL course, Porcayo, who grew up in Mexico without a mother, said she’s been fired from jobs because she couldn’t communicate. She looked up from a work-safety vocabulary sheet on Wednesday, May 1, and said, in halting, fractured English: “I need to speak. I need to read.”

While the library at 128 N. County St. has long offered tutoring in literacy, it made a renewed commitment last year to reach those it knows need help but aren’t coming to get it. Under the Promotoras, or ambassadors program, it sends volunteers throughout the city to survey Spanish-speakers on how the library can better serve. It then uses that information to structure programs.

What the library learned was that new immigrants, many who have no more than a few years of formal education, want help learning English but often don’t know how to get it. Carmen Patlan, who was hired to organize Promotoras, helped find volunteers who are known and trusted in the Latino community.

“These are people who have been ignored and polarized,” Patlan said. “We asked what barriers are holding them back. We’ve been successful because we’re teaching them what they want to learn.”

Besides Conversational ESL, which has an enrollment of 50, the library now offers nearly a dozen courses for Spanish-speakers, both children and adults. Leamos, a Web-based, self-paced Spanish Literacy course, is the only library program of its kind in the state, according to Patlan. Spanish pre-GED is also in demand. Other offerings include computer and office skills in Spanish, walk-in visits with a Spanish-speaking social worker and, about to begin, a “Functional Health” literacy course, which will teach about health care options, including when to go to the ER, and how to communicate with health-care providers.

Elizabeth Stearns, the library’s assistant director of community services, said libraries can’t wait and hope people will show up at the circulation desk.

“Yes, we have books,” Stearns said. “But if people can’t read, they can’t get the information in those books. We can’t just sit back and say ‘Our budget’s cut, too bad.’ The need grows. The economy has affected everybody, but it’s really hurting those who need to learn to read to move ahead.”

In its first year, Promotoras has registered nearly 900 new Latino patrons. More than half are active cardholders, checking out materials each month. Programs under the Promotoras umbrella − the library plans a similar outreach to African Americans − are fueled by volunteer labor, grants and private donations.

The library has received four national awards in its 115 years as a tax-supported institution, according to Stearns. But three, including the 2013 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the one the First Lady will bestow, have come in the last two years.

“We’ve learned to be nimble in response to community needs,” Stearns said. “And we understand the needs are shifting rapidly.”

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