Clara Barlow was beaming as she sat in the school media center at Lacoochee Elementary, flanked by a handful of graduates of Sed de Saber, a federally funded, home-based program that helps Spanish-speaking adults learn how to speak conversational English.
Barlow, an instructional assistant in ESOL — English for Speakers of Other Languages — works with and translates for Spanish-speaking parents. She crowed about the strides made by the 19 women who have completed the program.
Like Dora Romero, a mother of three who could understand English but had difficulty forming the words herself.
"I like the program because I learn to talk," she said, choosing her words carefully. "Before my pronunciation was different than everybody else's."
There's Maria Hernandez, a mother of two who wanted to be able to carry on a conversation while out in the community as well as at school.
"It is very important for me because I learn more to speak the language and I learn to read," she said. "I have more communication with the doctors and the teachers and with my children.
"I need more help to speak better," Hernandez added. "But I am trying."
Then there's one of Barlow's star pupils, Leslie Calderon, a mother of two daughters, ages 12 and 9, who could not speak any English when she came from Puerto Rico three years ago. Just a few weeks back, Calderon was able to hold her own for the first time during a parent/teacher conference at the school.
"I was so proud of her," said Barlow, who attended the conference to offer moral support. "I was there, but I didn't have to say anything."
The Sed de Saber program, which means "Thirst for Knowledge," is now in its second year at Lacoochee, a Title 1 school where 48 percent of the students come from Spanish-speaking homes.
Parents who enroll are sent home with a record and play-back device, along with six conversational workbooks that they master at their own pace. They work with a tutor by phone.
The program, funded through a Title III Language Acquisition grant, got its start after parents came to Barlow asking for an adult school-based English program. In its two years, the program has cost about $15,000, which pays for 20 electronic machines, educational books and materials, and telephone support staff. Nineteen parents "graduated" in October. Now 20 more are enrolled, and another three are on a waiting list.
"We've been very excited about it," said principal Karen Marler. "It's a wonderful opportunity for our parents to gain some of those language skills that will support their child's academic achievement."
The program has also served as a welcome mat of sorts, knocking down the language barrier for parents who often feel like outsiders.
Most of the parents who enrolled also volunteer at the school regularly, Barlow said. Many attend the Parent University nights that offer family educational activities and recognize parents for volunteering at school and in the community. Others have taken and passed their citizenship test. Then there are those who are now intent on getting their GED.
"It's good for parents and families," said Marler, who is also using Sed de Saber to learn Spanish. "It's improved communication with parents and teachers, which supports their child's growth. And even though they still struggle with English, they are no longer embarrassed to speak in English."
"But what I really see," Marler said, "is the self-confidence."
That kind of confidence goes a long way to promote growth, said Barlow, whose own experience is an example for others.
Barlow arrived in Tampa nine years ago from Colombia, seeking a better life. She was highly educated, having earned a doctorate in chemistry and biology in Colombia. She taught science in middle and high school as well as at the university level.
But Barlow's lack of English skills set her back in the United States. She began to pick up the language and ended up working as a bank teller, a sales clerk and for a medical billing company before landing a job at Lacoochee Elementary five years ago.
"I liked the medical billing job because I understood all the science terms," said Barlow, who is married and has a 6-year-old daughter. "But I really wanted to teach — to be in the schools."
Now Barlow, who was recently named a finalist for the Pasco County School District's School Related Personnel of the Year, is working to earn her teaching certificate while continuing to help others.
Her next goal: Get more men enrolled in Sed de Saber and see a GED program up and running at Lacoochee — something Marler hopes to get off the ground this school year.
Meanwhile, Barlow will continue to encourage others like Rachel Gomez, who is on that waiting list and is eager to get going.
"It's good," Gomez said with a smile. "I'm excited."