September 1, 2014

Literacy program honors its best

Retirees will take a bow as volunteer tutors of the year for Learning Quest, satisfying work for men who say they enjoy changing lives, one sentence or equation at a time.

Two heads were bent over a cartoon of a female astronaut fuming at reporters’ questions: Was the cabin tough to clean? Did she find time to knit?

One reader caught the message instantly. The other puzzled over the humor as much as the words.

For Estela Moreno Cortes, 30, inquiring about a woman’s knitting did not seem out of place, and who was Sally Ride?

For Joseph Fenton, 73, this was another opportunity to teach.

Fenton, Learning Quest/Stanislaus Literacy Centers’ Volunteer Tutor of the Year for Literacy, spends about three hours a week with Cortes. In roughly a year and a half, she has gained six years in reading level, going from testing at third grade to reading like a high school freshman.

“She’ll be capping out pretty soon,” Fenton said, meaning she’ll be graduating. “I’ll hate to see her go. Now it’s like visiting an old friend twice a week.”

It will be a second graduation for Cortes, who holds a high school diploma from her native Mexico. In the United States, however, she has been able to get only dishwashing and cooking jobs without a solid grasp of English, and lives with her parents. Her goal, she said during a tutoring session Thursday, is a better job.

“She can double her income by learning English,” said Fenton, who sold furniture for a manufacturer for 43 years. It was a newspaper notice of tutors needed that started his volunteer career. Cortes is one of five students he’s tutored.

To stretch Cortes’ vocabulary, they read popular fiction. This day’s book is “Catching Fire,” the second in Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” series. Cortes carries a thick stack of unfamiliar words she’s written on 5-by-7-inch flash cards, with the definition in English and Spanish on the back.

“We use the workbooks, but every once in a while, we branch out,” Fenton said. He likes to mix it up, to keep it fresh for himself as much as for her, he said. They’ve watched old silent movies with the written-out dialogue, listened to books on cassette tapes and scanned easy reads on his Kindle e-book reader. He even tried using a tablet to find definitions, but it proved too taxing, he said.

“He is very patient. He helps me with conversations and corrects me when I don’t say words well,” Cortes said, “and he’s always on time.”

Punctuality is a trait they share, with Fenton generally arriving a half-hour early to prepare the day’s lesson. “Just to see her accomplish what she has makes it fun for me,” he said.

The same satisfaction is voiced by Bob Shannon, Volunteer Tutor of the Year for GED. Fenton tutors one-on-one at the library, and Shannon volunteers Thursday mornings at the center, working with drop-in students as they reach a rough patch.

“Just the pleasure of seeing them learn, seeing them pick up things. They’re banging their heads saying, ‘I just don’t get this,’ and then they do,” said Shannon, 77. A longtime general contractor, he specializes in helping kids with math.

“I do all of it, but more in the math area because I think more of them turned off to math in school. Some just turned off to school in general,” he said. Most of what he does is simplify the problems, he said. “Most of it really is simple.”

It’s much the same as what he did in sixth grade when an astute teacher put the wiggly 12-year-old to work helping his classmates. “I had ADD. I couldn’t sit still, so I tutored kids. That way, I learned the subject matter better. It was the only class I ever got straight A’s in,” Shannon said.

“I never wanted to be a teacher, but I felt I had some abilities along those lines to help people,” Shannon said. He joined the volunteer group after learning of the need at a community event. “People don’t realize there is that way of giving back, through helping people to achieve their goals.”

Shannon and Fenton will take a bow at Learning Quest’s annual awards night and graduation Thursday.

“It’s a one-hour event with lots of impact and celebration for our students who get to walk the stage in a cap and gown for the first time,” said Karen Williams, Learning Quest executive director.

Here are the student award winners, with biographical information provided by Learning Quest.

Winners for literacy:

• Greatest achievement, Victor Espinal: Espinal wanted a GED but needed to get his English and basic math skills up to high school level. He did that and was able to move on to GED studies. He also got a full-time job.
• Most improved, Manuel Maciel: At 46, Maciel was unable to text friends, use a computer or travel to areas where he needed to read road signs. It was the desire to read stories to his 3-year-old that brought him to Learning Quest. After a year of study, he has gone from illiteracy to a sixth-grade reading level.
• Best effort, Peo Sok: Sok is always there, always on time. She asks for extra homework and has greatly improved her English. She helps struggling classmates with math, her best subject.

Winners for GED:

• Greatest achievement, James Windust: Windust passed all the new GED tests on his first try, becoming one of the first Learning Quest students to clear the bar on the computerized version. He completed the program in four months, while working. His dream is to enlist in the U.S. Army, which requires a GED or diploma.
• Most improved, Fidel Banuelos: Banuelos began preparing for the GED while incarcerated. After his release, it was a chance meeting while setting up the chairs for last year’s awards night at his church that brought him to Learning Quest. He enrolled soon after and soon will take his test.
• Best effort, Christopher Barajas: Barajas enrolled in GED classes at the Stanislaus County Jail and passed all but the math section before the test changed in January, nullifying all of his paper test results. He had to start over. He prepared for the online test, but delays at the jail meant an eight-month wait. “He has not let that stop him and is in the process of testing because he never gave up,” Williams wrote.

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