Soaking up Spanish

Singing in Spanish and bouncing around her classroom in an animated style, Socorro Nelson belted out a simple verse to teach some new words: “Soy una pizza con mucho queso.”

The reply in Spanish from 11 students came in a mix of motley accents: I am a pizza with lots of cheese.

Nelson is a kindergarten teacher at the bilingual Cali Calmécac Language Academy in Windsor. But these weren’t her usual pupils. They were local teachers, librarians and other professionals taking part in the weeklong Spanish Language Immersion Institute at the Sonoma County Office of Education.

With the Latino population on the rise in the county and schools, local government employees, nurses and educators are looking for ways to learn the language to reach out to the Spanish-speaking community.

“A lot of the teachers have told me that many of the students that they are getting in their classrooms speak very little English,” Nelson said. “That’s why they are trying to acquire the basic Spanish, so they can help the students - (and) feed the needs of the growing Hispanic community that we have in Sonoma County.”

The program is among several that are trying to boost Spanish literacy in the county. They include the Petaluma-based language school Colors of Spanish and classes at Santa Rosa Junior College that frequently draw educators.

Guadalupe Tausch, founder of Colors of Spanish, said those who learn a new tongue are more receptive to new ideas and cultures. “People also earn more money,” she added.

She offers 10-week Spanish classes for adults at her school. Many of her students are doctors, nurses and technicians in the medical field who often get patients who don’t speak English, Tausch said.

“Learning a second language is a privilege,” Tausch said. “But it’s something you have to work hard at every day.”

In Nelson’s Spanish class for beginners, Dianne Ellingson said she doesn’t have problems communicating with the students in her class at La Tercera Elementary School in Petaluma; it’s the parents who are the challenge. A teacher for more than two decades, Ellingson now sees far more students from Spanish-speaking homes come through her classroom door. Learning the language would allow her to discuss student performance with the parents, she said.

“The kids typically have enough English,” said Ellingson, 54. “But their parents don’t. Being able to pick up a phone and talk to a parent, that’s my goal.”

Nelson has been teaching the intensive language program for more than 25 years. Although the program was cut in half to five days a few years ago when the economy began to plummet, it continues to draw dozens of people each summer who work with the Latino community.

“We never had to cancel. We’ve had it every year,” Nelson said about the language program, which concluded Friday.

The enrollment cost was cut when the class length was reduced, making it more affordable for participants, said Alma Shofner, who for nine years has been teaching the intensive language courses with Nelson.

“It’s more convenient,” said Shofner, also a teacher at Cali Calmécac. “In five days, they work a lot.”

Participants pay $325 for the weeklong program. Teachers who take the courses can receive continuing education credits, which allow them to move up on the pay scale, Shofner added.

Although the program usually has about 50 students, she said fewer people signed up for this summer’s classes because they weren’t as heavily publicized as in the past. Thirty-five people were enrolled in the beginning, intermediate and advanced classes.

Still, Shofner said she expects the program will continue to grow as the Latino population increases in the county. Latinos make up about 26 percent of the county’s population, compared to 17 percent in 2000.

County schools also have seen significant growth. Latinos account for 42 percent of K-12 enrollment. Four years ago, they made up 35 percent.

“With the schools’ changing demographics, it provides a great opportunity for the fall,” Sonoma County Schools Superintendent Steven Herrington said about the intensive language program.

Second-grade teacher Dorothy Steiner started studying Spanish several years ago. But she’s taken part in the language-immersion program since last summer because, she said, she doesn’t want the language to fade.

Steiner, who previously took Spanish classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, said many of her students at Miwok Valley Language Academy in Petaluma are English-language learners, and she gets at least one student a year who’s new to the country. This past school year, she said, she taught a boy from Mexico who didn’t speak English.

“I could tell it was a great relief to him and his family, even though I made many mistakes,” said the 53-year-old Steiner, who was in Shofner’s intermediate class, where she and the other adults were drilling on Spanish grammar.

In learning Spanish, Steiner, a native Hungarian speaker who also studied French, said she hopes to encourage her students to try a new language.

“I always talk to them about how learning a different language is very valuable,” she said.

Jacqueline McGhee, an English professor at Santa Rosa Junior College, decided to take the beginner’s class after she noticed a lot of her students were native Spanish speakers. She said many of them were coming into her class after completing English as a Second Language courses.

“They’re very motivated. They work very hard. It seemed like the least I can do,” McGhee, 49, said about learning Spanish.

According to a college official, nearly a third of the more than 28,000 students are Latino.

Earlier this week, McGhee and 10 others in Nelson’s class read about brown bears, conjugated verbs and sang. From 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., all they listened to was Spanish. That was a challenge for McGhee, who had no prior experience speaking the language.

“I’m used to being the person who has the answers,” she said. “It’s humbling. It builds my character.”

For Healdsburg library technician Denise Van Gerpen, the biggest challenge wasn’t learning conjugations for the verb “tener,” meaning “to have.” It was the dancing that Nelson incorporates into her lessons.

“I don’t dance,” said Van Gerpen, who has been with the Sonoma County Library system for nearly eight years and is trying to learn Spanish to reach out to Latino parents.

They often come in with the kids, but she can’t communicate with them. “I feel like I’m not servicing the public enough,” Van Gerpen said.

She said she’d like to encourage parents to explore the library’s books in Spanish and provide them with other information, such as how to apply for U.S. citizenship.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or

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