Programs for English Literacy Face Ongoing Budget Fights

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Four days a week, Luis Rizo wakes up at 5 a.m. to travel by subway and on foot for more than an hour from his home in Jamaica, Queens, to the Bushwick section of Brooklyn for an English language class.

Mr. Rizo, 54, immigrated to New York less than two years ago from Guatemala, where he said he worked as a pediatrician. But his poor English skills, he said, have held him back as he seeks work in the medical field. His hope is that supplemental language classes will remedy his current dilemma.

Many students from countries like Egypt, Germany and the Dominican Republic are “looking for an opportunity to succeed,” he said, like himself, who arrived without a job or money. If the classes were not free, he said, “we would not be able to take advantage of this program.”

But these kinds of programs have been threatened by proposed cuts to the New York City budget, prompting advocates to try to convince officials just how essential adult literacy classes are for immigrants trying to find a foothold in the labor market in America.

The classes teach students how to pronounce words, structure sentences, and conjugate verbs. More than that, though, teachers and activists say the classes can also serve as a gateway extending well beyond language, to opportunity and services.

Officials from nonprofits that offer the classes said they find themselves mired in a familiar fight. Such literacy programs — including English for Speakers of a Second Language, high school equivalency and professional development classes — are recurring targets for cuts in the city budget.

Usually, city leaders relent, in some form or another, preserving the classes — but not after an exhausting effort, said Lena Cohen, a policy analyst at United Neighborhood Houses, a network that provides educational and recreational services.

“This has been a challenge for years,” she said.

Nonprofits mobilized in February after Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed eliminating the $12 million proposed for adult literacy-based programs in the city’s budget for the 2020 fiscal year.

Mr. de Blasio eventually agreed to a proposal from the City Council that would budget $8 million for such programs, which include English literacy. Yet the mayor still has not agreed to guarantee funding for the programs beyond the next fiscal year.

Advocates say that guarantee would spare the nonprofits from having to wage the same fight during the next round of budget negotiations.

“This year, we will need to be cognizant of the city’s new economic reality and our citywide mandatory savings targets when evaluating any new needs,” Raul Contreras, a spokesman for the mayor, said in an email.

Still, the nonprofits argue their programs can benefit an “enormous” segment of the city, according to the New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy.

The organization says one-third of adult New Yorkers, some 2.2 million people, lack English proficiency or an equivalent high school diploma.

These free programs largely attract low-income students, with an average yearly income of $21,000, according to information provided by the Mercy Center, a community organization in the Bronx that offers language classes.

Jesika Reyes, who moved to the Bronx from the Dominican Republic in 2017, takes English literacy classes at the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, where she also works as a receptionist, practicing her English and gaining professional experience.

“I started to take classes from zero,” Ms. Reyes, 35, said, noting the difficulties she had as a single mother trying to take care of her son. “I didn’t have experience taking classes or speaking English in this country.”

But now, she said, she can carry a conversation, ask for help and understand her son’s doctor. Still, she said, she has much room to improve, so for now, she keeps going to the class.