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Irene Martinez

LAUSD/DACE - Franklin Community Adult School

Irene Martinez is a living example of the adage, “success is not giving up.” Juggling four nights a week in class against the complications and pressures of life as an immigrant, many students drop in and out of school. Their progress seems to be two steps forward and one step back . Some give up altogether, but Irene was one who stuck with it. It takes a lot of courage to return after taking a long break and relearn things you had already put the effort into learning. And it takes a lot of tenacity to stick to something when progress is slowed by frequent intermissions. For 17 years Irene never gave up. She tenaciously stuck to the program; her inner resolve keeping her on target. "I encouraged myself to go to school because I believe the more you know the better. I can motivate myself, when times are difficult," she says.

Irene arrived in Los Angeles from Mexico in 1987, a young single woman, in the heart of California 's largest city, who didn't know any English. Her first job was as a cook at McDonalds, where a kindly supervisor told her that if she learned a little English she could work up front at the register. This motivated Irene to go school. After work, she would board a city bus to Montebello Community Adult School, returning home by bus late in the evening. Every January, because of the rain and darkness, she would drop out, but the following summer she would return.

Irene's intermittent attendance continued for about nine years. By 1997 she had finally reached Intermediate Low level. She had a better job, too. She was working in a uniform factory, had a car, and was demonstrating an undeniable degree of English competence. One factor was meeting and falling in love with a fellow who didn't know any Spanish! They married and moved to Highland Park, where Irene wanted to enroll at Franklin CAS.

There was a problem; however. “My husband,” says Irene “didn't really support my need for formal education.”

“You don't have to go to school, I can teach you,” he assured her.

Across many cultures, it's especially hard for a wife to pursue education without support from her spouse. She tried explaining that she had larger goals than simply improving her conversation ability. She wanted to speak and write properly, to really understand the language of this country, to better herself, to help her family, and to help others. He changed his mind, and became a chief supporter of Irene's educational goals.

Irene enrolled in Ellis Spector's advanced multi-level class at the Nightingale branch of Franklin Community Adult School. Again, her attendance was inconsistent due to life's ups and downs and everyday pressures. But, since dropping out was always followed by dropping back in, her progress slowly continued, right up until motherhood.

Caring for her child took her away from school for a full three years. "Becoming a new mother was a big responsibility," Irene says, and hard as it may have been to start again after so long away, she felt she had to do it. "I wanted to continue my education," she said with resolve. But, from that point on, motherhood came first, and when her growing family needed her, she stopped attending class. She continued attending Mr. Spector's class off and on over the next eight years, never giving up on her dream. She says, "I'd start again. You need to continue, and go back."

As Irene's abilities improved, she gained enough confidence to make a pair of decisions. First, she would start to speak to her children in English as well as Spanish. Second, she would volunteer to read to Preschoolers at Latona Elementary School . Irene began to fulfill her dream of using the language skills she was learning to help her family and the community. Her success and Mr. Spector's encouragement formed even bigger dreams in Irene.

Irene had made significant progress in Mr. Spector's advanced multilevel class by 2004, and she felt prepared and confident when she finally got the opportunity to fulfill another ambition. She was hired as a Dining Coordinator for the International Institute of Los Angeles, a city program which provides lunch for senior citizens. The job requires extensive reading, writing and speaking in English, and she loves it. Irene alone is responsible for the smooth functioning of the Highland Park Nutrition Program. She is required to read and completely understand the rules about food sanitation, proper temperatures, procedures and a lot more. "Every day they give us different papers to read. I'm learning new things every day," she says. She must study the nutritional descriptions of each item she serves, and be able to respond when the clients ask "How much salt?" or "What kind of oil?" If she doesn't know the answer, she never responds vaguely. She writes down the question, asks her boss at the next meeting, then gets back to the client with the answer.

Irene feels her responsibilities extend beyond her normal job duties. She wants to make the elderly of the community feel welcome. Many of them are alone at home, and the lunch program is their time to relax and be with others. A warmhearted outgoing woman, Irene engages cheerfully with the many repeat clients saying, "I love the experiences they share." Additionally, Irene makes a point of helping elderly individuals who may at times be confused. "Like my grandparents, they don't want to be told what to do, like to wear new clothes, or take a shower, but they would feel better about themselves if they did," she says, "so I talk to them about it." It can be difficult, and draws upon all her ability to use the language with tact and nuance. Citing one example, in which a gentleman's shoes were on the wrong feet, she said, "He didn't realize it, and was glad to be told. I think about when I'm old. I want to treat them the way I'd like to be treated." Caring about the dignity and well-being of the program's clientele, Irene assertively advocates on their behalf during the meetings she attends, whenever she feels their interest is threatened; such as any talk of the city cutting back on the Nutrition Program.

Married eight years with four children, Irene considers the most ideal part of her job to be the hours she is able work while the children are in school and be done in time to pick them up. In the late afternoon and evening, she can read books to them and help them with their homework. Irene is very glad she knows English and grammar: "It's a comfort when you can read to and help your children. If we don't understand something we go to the dictionary or books, or to the computer.

One wall in Irene's home displays her Adult School Achievement and Promotion certificates. As her children grow, their academic achievement certificates and awards are also displayed on this wall. She consciously tries to model for them the ideal of learning as a thing of pride, a lifelong value. It seems to have taken hold. An observer watching Irene help her daughter can see that the little girl glows with enjoyment and pride in learning.

Irene has successfully reached her goals, and she is a woman brimming over with confidence, enthusiasm, and satisfaction. She has inspired her children, and helped preschoolers and elderly in the community. So, what's next? Irene declares, "I love to learn new things," and she is determined to build on her education and career achievements. Her newest goal is to become a Nutritionist. Always interested in food and cooking, Irene has now discovered a passionate interest in the physiological effects of food. At work, she often meets with the Nutritionist to discuss the educational process leading to certification.

It may take awhile, as Irene balances her commitments, especially while her children are still young, but she has proved to be a woman who makes full use of her opportunities, does not give up, and moves ahead however slowly until she reaches her goals.

LAUSD/DACE - Franklin Community Adult School Web site

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