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New programs help Latino community complete education

Sarah Dixon

They did it to get ahead by getting the equivalent of an American high school diploma. And they were able to do it –thanks to the Colorado Mountain College – in English or their native tongue, Spanish.

“The first time I came to America, I felt like I was in jail because I could not express myself, or communicate,” said graduate Elsa Soberanes. “Now I am free because I can go anywhere, I can communicate. I thank CMC because now I feel at home here.”

The CMC program allows students to earn a GED – a high school equivalency diploma –in the classes that are taught in either English or Spanish. Some students earned certificates from the State of Colorado recognizing their English-speaking skills through the English as a Second Language program.



Yet for many of the students wearing caps and gowns at Friday’s graduation in Eagle, the learning experience was as much about finding a niche in a foreign culture as it was about completing their education.

“For me, it was a goal in this country, because I want a better job, and to improve my education,” said Spanish GED graduate Laura Badillo. “My teacher helped a lot. I want the Latino community to know that this is possible for the people.”



Making time

Soberanes, who earned her GED in Spanish and a certificate in English, is a working single mother of two living in East Vail, who found time to leave the children with family, drive to Edwards and take three hours of classes twice a week.

Badillo significantly lengthened her work day twice a week in order to earn her diploma.



“I work from 8 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. and then have to hurry over here,” she said.

CMC teacher and administrator Jan Attoma said the students were deeply committed to their classes.

“The notion that the Spanish speaking community doesn’t want to learn English, or is not trying to learn the language is really contradicted here,” Attoma said. “The Spanish speaking students are our hardest workers and our best students.”

CMC specifically tailors the program to fit a body of students with vastly differing educational backgrounds.

“We have placement tests so that students can take the appropriate classes, at their own level and pace,” says Attoma. “Some students have been in high school in Mexico before, and others never finished seventh grade. We try to accommodate all levels of past education.”

Good guidance

“I went to high school in Mexico, but it was 20 years ago,” said Spanish GED graduate David Rodriguez. “My teacher made it easier on me – he’s very patient, very passionate. He is a good person, a good teacher.”

His teacher, Natividad Maldonado, doubled as a student himself – he taught the Spanish GED classes while at the same time studying for his Second Language certificate.

“He’s incredible,” Attoma said of Maldonado. “He has made this program possible, and has helped the students achieve their dreams of better education.”

Maldonado, speaking with Attoma as an interpreter, had a more modest take on things.

“I’m just an instrument. The success of this program is directly attributable to the students and their dedication to their studies,” he said.

Indeed, dedication is an undeniable trait of this graduating class, teachers say.

“They come here for a sense of completion, of accomplishment,” Attoma says. “When they earn their GED, they have something to put on job applications that is recognized in America, that is valid in this country. It’s also about confidence. They are motivated, dedicated students.”

Badillo says the program gets many started on a better life.

“Don’t change this program,” Badillo says. “Some things are easy for me, because I went to high school in Mexico. But some never went to school after elementary, and there are classes for every level. It might be easy for me, but it is good for others with less education. We want progress, something better for everyone.”

Life lessons

An integral part of all programs offered at CMC is the help they offer Latino students in adjusting to life in America.

“They study and learn basic American laws, cultural rules and basic communication skills,” Attoma says. “Speakers come in to talk to them and try to help them assimilate.”

The Second Language program also helps these students outside the classroom. into this very different culture.

“There are 30 assessments they have to meet to be awarded the certificate,” says Attoma. “These requirements range from health vocabulary to speaking, reading and writing skills.”

After fulfilling the Second Language requirements, students do a taped interview, which is sent in with their portfolio to be assessed by officials of the state of Colorado. Then the student is presented with a Second Language certificate, Attoma said

But the language is not the only thing that’s different in Mexico, Badillo said.

“People here in Colorado are very kind people,” Badillo said. “But the Latino life is very different. When we go to a park, or a cafe, or do recreational activities we don’t know the rules because its so different in Mexico.”

Taking off

“The GED in Spanish is a new program, but it’s taken off like a rocket,” Attoma said. “Many of these students are unable to take high school level classes in a foreign language. This new program allows them to continue their education in their own tongue.”

This is the second year of the Spanish GED program. Last year there were 3 graduates in the program. This year it started with one class of 20, and now there are 3 classes with a total of over 60 people studying for their GED in their native language.

The success of the program should be a message to the community, as well as to the state, that such programs are invaluable to Latino and American communities alike, Attoma said.

Attoma translated for Maldonado as he explained what he sees as the larger goals that the GED and Second Language programs are helping the Latino community achieve.

“Beyond just learning and getting their GED’s, these students are addressing the very social issues at the heart of their struggle in this country,” he says. “They are gaining knowledge and qualification to get better jobs both here and in their home land.

“Also, they will pass on to their children what they themselves are doing – if they complete high school, they will expect of their children no less,” he says.

He also said that it’s important that schools throughout Colorado to offer similar programs.

“CMC is a trendsetter in the state and should be seen as a model for other community colleges,” Maldonado says. “There are only a handful of schools in the entire state of colorado that offer the GED in Spanish, and the impact it has had on this community should be a lesson to schools everywhere of how positive an influence such a program can be.”

As David Rodriguez stepped to the podium on Friday to receive his GED, 20 years after graduating high school in his homeland of Mexico, his eyes shone with accomplishment.

“I love my school,” he said, with a proud grin.


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