Classes and tutoring programs bridge gap between Latinos, English-speakers

Students in Mike Smith's ESL class meet twice a week to practice their English. Most are from Latin American countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Columbia and Peru.
Photo by Lauren Beheshti |

Yvonne Chavez, who moved to Park City from Peru in June of 2016, came to the U.S. with enough English to say, “Hello,” but that was it. Daily tasks, such as ordering food, were stressful and, at times, humiliating.

Chavez is one of the students in the Park City School District’s adult English as a Second Language program and a previous participant in the Good Neighbors tutoring program. She is still learning, but at least she no longer has to flap her elbows like a chicken when ordering wings. Instead, she can say, “Chicken wings, please.”

This is her second year in the ESL program, but the district has been teaching immigrants for about 18 years, said Lauren Beheshti, community education program coordinator. To keep up with the steady growth of the program and the increased demand for individual help, the district also rolled out a tutoring program called Good Neighbors last year.

Beheshti said providing services the students want has always been a goal of the adult education program.

“We try to keep as consistent communication that we can with the people that we are serving in order to really assess their needs and to make sure we are giving them the services that they need, rather than what we think is needed,” she said.

The tutoring program, which pairs English-speaking volunteers with those learning the language, has proved to be extremely successful. So successful, in fact, that Beheshti is constantly searching for more volunteers to match with students.

Students use the tutors to perfect their English, like Chavez did with her tutor last year, but also to study for tests, such as the U.S. citizenship test or driver’s tests.

Maria Peña Fonseca emigrated from Colombia in 2001. She spent years learning the language, but finally wanted the opportunity to be a citizen and find a better job. She attended ESL classes twice a week and visited with her tutor, Derick Loyola, once a week. It took a lot of her extra time, but she was grateful because it paid off. She finally became a citizen.

“It is a sacrifice that’s worth it,” she said.

She said the ESL classes she took at the district helped her feel more confident at work. Now, as a citizen, she has more job opportunities.

Beheshti said that is one of the main reasons the district has the tutoring program and adult education classes, which also include a GED (General Education Development) program for adults living in Park City who did not graduate from high school.

“A lot of these people were professionals in their home countries, like engineers and lawyers,” she said. “Here, they are in the hotel service industry, they are in housekeeping, they are in laundry, and they don’t want to be in these jobs. They really do have the credentials; it’s just the language piece that they’re lacking. Getting them back up to their level is important.”

The students, who have left their countries and culture behind, also find a community with other students in the classroom and with English-speakers through Good Neighbors.

The program connects what can sometimes feel like two separate communities, Beheshti said.

Loyola, who tutored Peña while she was studying for her citizenship test, agreed. One moment stuck out to him after Peña told her son that someone was helping her with her citizenship test.

“He asked, ‘How much does that cost you, Mom?’ and she said, ‘Oh no. It’s free. The volunteers are helping me do this.’ The kid was pretty blown away. He was like, ‘Why would somebody give up their time to do something like that to help my mom?’” Loyola said. “I think it definitely is a bridge between the communities.”


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