Union seeks Habla expansion, questions University commitment

March 16, 2017, 7:53 a.m.

For Angel Parra, an irrigation grounds worker who has been at Stanford for 15 years, getting an English as a Second Language (ESL) education has been tough. Because he lives 80 miles away from campus, he leaves his house in San Joaquin Valley at 3:15 a.m. and returns around 5 p.m. to accommodate his early shift. Although he has attended night school in the past, the large class size was frustrating, and it was difficult to leave his three children at home.

Parra was one of the two workers that Land, Buildings & Real Estate (LBRE) agreed to release for an hour twice a week to attend Stanford’s Habla program, a student group that provides one-on-one ESL tutoring to Stanford workers. This quarter, five more workers joined the program for a total of seven.

SEIU Local 2007, the union that represents over 1200 workers like Parra at Stanford and Santa Clara University, pushed for Habla’s expansion into the department last spring. Union and Habla leaders hope the success of the LBRE program will allow workers in other departments to access the program as well, but worry that Stanford is not fully supportive of providing ESL classes to workers. They cite the difficulty of working with individual departments and a lack of interest from the University’s central Human Resources (HR) department, a characterization that University officials disagree with.

SEIU pushes for ESL expansion

Habla holds two tutoring sessions twice a week: Habla el Día during the day and Habla la Noche at night. When SEIU Local 2007 Executive Director Francisco Preciado ’07 approached LBRE at the end of winter 2016, he framed the ESL classes as a way to increase work performance and growth within LBRE. LBRE leaders agreed, but questioned whether the program would affect business interests and give measurable benefits to workers.

“Beyond getting excited about doing something, it’s from a practice standpoint,” said Jenifer Wantuck, LBRE’s Human Resources manager. “How do you roll it out? How disruptive is it going to be?”

Because Habla had student tutors available immediately in the spring, LBRE allowed two workers, including Parra, to attend the Dia session for a quarter. Workers agreed to give up their 15-minute break, and in exchange, leadership released them for another 45 minutes so that they could attend the 1-hour tutoring session. After seeing language improvement, LBRE has said it can release up to 15 participants quarterly for the next year — an arrangement that Preciado welcomed with concern about its permanence.

Although SEIU and LBRE leaders both review applications each quarter for entrance to the ESL classes, LBRE ultimately decides who may attend due to what Wantuck described as “operational needs.” Workers may re-apply for up to three quarters, but not necessarily consecutively; according to Wantuck, the department cannot release workers during busy seasons, such as when the department is preparing for commencement. This means that workers may go multiple quarters without English classes, putting them at a disadvantage for the visible measures of improvement that LBRE seeks, noted Preciado.

“In eight weeks … you can’t really learn a language,” Preciado said. “So you’re going to have to think about the metrics. If you expect people to grow exponentially, and then they don’t grow exponentially and the program is cut … it’s a catch-22 from our perspective.”

Traditionally Habla has used a pre- and post-class testing system, but to gauge improvement over the course of the year rather than over a single quarter. LBRE, SEIU and Habla are currently negotiating how workers will be evaluated and what “measuring success” really means in the context of language learning. Wantuck also had concerns with testing as the sole criterion, and said that other methods of improvement may be taken into account such as managers’ reports of increased confidence.

Preciado plans to research other trainings offered through Stanford’s Staff Training Assistance Program (STAP) funds to see how success is measured in different worker education schemes. If metrics are not standardized across programs, he argues, that puts Habla in an unfair position.

“It shouldn’t be a higher standard for this program,” he said. “[While for] another program — just because someone else approved it — then it’s okay to not show any metric or certification.”

University’s commitment to ESL

Preciado and Habla coordinator Patricia Perozo ’17 hope that Habla’s expansion into LBRE will act as a “proof-of-concept” to show to other departments. But improving access to ESL classes has proven logistically difficult: Ideally, Preciado would work with University HR to show support for and publicize Habla to all interested workers represented by SEIU Local 2007 and coordinate with their respective departments, but he has found it hard to get buy-in.

Instead, Preciado says he has had to convince individual departments of the need for ESL classes in the first place, and negotiate arrangements without the institutional or logistical backing that a formal collaboration with University HR could provide.

“We have a positional relationship on many issues because we’re representing the workers, and they’re representing the University,” Preciado said of the union’s interactions with University’s central HR. “We understand the positionality of that, so we have open lines of communication, but some things take longer than others in order to actually address problems.”

If access to classes were standardized, Preciado added, there would be little need to rationalize every aspect of the program to individual departments. Instead, central HR could manage many of the negotiations with departments that currently fall on the union’s shoulders.

While University officials have shown their support for similar staff development measures, Habla fills a niche as a community-oriented program that seeks to build bonds between staff and students beyond the tangible goals of workplace training and life readiness.  

As a workplace education program that includes ESL, college preparation and computer literacy courses, Stepping Stones to Success (SSTS) is, in a sense, Habla’s University-backed counterpart. However, LBRE leadership chose Habla over SSTS when Preciado first pitched ESL classes, as they had heard that SSTS had tight deadlines and a waitlist for enrollment, while LBRE wanted to pilot a program as soon as the next quarter.

Moreover, some SSTS modules are specific to on-the-job training language skills, and the programs are not exact substitutes for one another. According to Habla coordinators Patricia Perozo ’17 and Ildemaro Gonzalez ’18, Habla’s one-on-one tutoring between students and workers establishes personal relationships that flourish outside class. Students have invited their tutees to events such as Día de los Muertos celebrations at El Centro, aiming for workers to be “actually part of the Stanford community outside of being here to work for us,” said Gonzalez.

Since its inception in 2002, SSTS has grown to a cohort of 62 employees in its last quarter, with employees from multiple departments, though it began as a R&DE initiative. According to Jocelyn Breeland, executive director of R&DE Communications, 30 Stanford Health employees are currently enrolled in SSTS — a feat that Habla has found difficult to match as it lacks a centralized platform to seek new collaborations.

However, Preciado noted that that the union does not favor Habla over SSTS so long as all workers have access to one program or the other.

“We would like the University to commit to promoting ESL programs as a recognized training,” Preciado wrote in an email to the Daily. “If all the departments would agree to being open to releasing workers for either Stepping Stones or Habla, that would be ideal.”

Asked about future collaboration with Habla, Miranda stated that the University “look[s] forward to working with the SEIU on any plans it has to expand eligibility for the Habla program to all Stanford employees,” but emphasized that the University neither administers nor determines eligibility in the Habla program at present.

Habla in the Stanford community

According to Perozo and Gonzalez, Habla provides a singular opportunity for many of Stanford’s workers to improve their language skills. It also makes workers less invisible to students, they said.

Parra said he joined the program to help his 13-year-old daughter with homework, and to communicate more fluently while at the doctor’s and through email.

“Most of us [workers] are from Mexico, Central America,” Parra said. “You know, we want to be part of the United States — we’re here already, we want to enjoy with everybody, and that’s the idea. My kids can see how I improve too.”

He feels Habla’s one-to-one teacher-to-student ratio has helped bolster his skills more than other ESL night classes he’s taken.

“Before I [was] kind of scared to talk, because maybe my pronunciation is not going to be good,” Parra said. “Now I feel more comfortable to say what I feel.”

Although many workers are “mega-commuters” who drive up to three hours to multiple jobs each day, the coordinators described workers as intensely dedicated to the program. For Parra, the motivation and reward is being able to live and work comfortably in the country he immigrated to at age 17. Another member, who works as a custodian at night and at The Treehouse during the day, asked his tutors to meet with him daily.

Perozo said that Habla’s expansion also benefits student tutors. Currently, around 40 student tutors volunteer for Habla el Día and Habla la Noche, and with more workers enrolled in the program, more tutors will be able to participate. Some join the program because of previous interest in immigrants’ rights or social mobility, while others have had no exposure to the lives and stories of campus workers.

Regardless of their background, Habla provides a perspective on Stanford that many students would not ordinarily have. On a sprawling campus where workers plant and prune gardens, clean up students’ messes in dorms and dining halls, cook thousands of pounds of food, irrigate lawns, repair fountains and generally maintain the order and comfort of student life, Habla tries to bridge the striking disconnect between staff and students.

“It broadens the horizons for a lot of students on campus as to experiences in this world, and makes people understand what goes into making Stanford what it is,” Perozo said. “It’s important that people respect and acknowledge the work that [staff is] doing.”

Looking ahead, Preciado has been in touch with members of the School of Medicine about opening up the program to their workers as well and is awaiting their response as they conduct research. Ultimately, ESL classes hinge on the willingness of departments to collaborate with Habla, as well as the union’s and coordinators’ capacity for more participants.

“Once the University or department decides not to release [workers], they’d be killing the program,” Preciado said.

Fangzhou Liu contributed reporting to this article.

Contact Fiona Kelliher at fionak ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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