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Library Breaks Down Language Barriers For Kids, And Parents

In the West Dallas branch of the city’s public library system, students are learning English. That's no surprise -- especially for a neighborhood with many Latino immigrants.

What's different here, though, is that both parents and kids are in class -- right across the hallway. The dual effort is part of the new Atmos Energy Literacy Center, which opened in January as a partnership with Texas A&M University Commerce. 

Arisbee Maldonado, 29, came from Mexico a decade ago. The mother of three girls and a boy says she needs to learn English so she can talk to her children's teachers.

A big obstacle to learning, though, has been what to do with her kids while she's in class. She searched online but couldn't find the right program. Until now.

In the program she found at the West Dallas library, not only does she go to class -- her children do, too.

One of the kids' classmates is Madeline Rivera, 5, who says she visits the library every day.

She likes to draw and paint, but the big focus for these kids is reading. Madeline's teacher, Rosalinda Crescencio, gets the students to repeat words and asks questions while she reads to them.

"But we also ask them to draw us a picture at the end just so that we can see that they're actually learning and understanding what we're reading to them," she says.

Raising the education level is crucial for an area like West Dallas where more than half of adults never finished high school and more than 60 percent of families speak Spanish at home.

"There really is a struggle for education here in West Dallas that crosses race and ethnicity lines," says Jasmine Africawala, community engagement coordinator for the Dallas public libraries.

She says on registration days, lines to sign up for the free classes stretch out the door.

Some adult students like Griselda Paulin are still more comfortable speaking Spanish. But she says she's been practicing, like on a recent trip to a medical clinic where everyone only spoke English.

She managed to fill out paperwork and talk to the receptionist, which means her children won't have to be interpreters.

"Most of the kids here are children of immigrants. It's probably like 99 percent of these kids," says Steve Pacheco, who teaches kids ages 5 through 8. "Their first language is Spanish, so it's really hard for them to read English. But some of these kids here, they're leaning a lot of English as they come to the library, so it's really nice."

Pacheco says the children adapt quickly. Take Arisbee Maldonado's daughter, Daniella. The 8-year-old is in the middle of reading Carl and the Puppies.

With the help of Carl and those pups, Daniella is well on her way to mastering English. And maybe even help her mom learn it, too.

Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.