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Susan Chaityn Lebovits | People

Clamoring for key to US

In changing times, ESL program has seen steady growth

Director Christine Tibor visits an ESL class at the New Life Presbyterian Community Church in Framingham. Director Christine Tibor visits an ESL class at the New Life Presbyterian Community Church in Framingham. (BILL POLO/GLOBE STAFF)

One of Christine Tibor's former students escaped from a Cambodian refugee camp; another was a conductor for the St. Petersburg Symphony in Russia. But no matter where they've been, all of her students are here for the same reason: to learn English and have a better life in the United States.

The problem, said Tibor, director of the Framingham English as a Second Language program for adults, is that although the program is able to accommodate 620 students, she must turn away more than 500 every semester.

"Each person's story is more heartbreaking than the next," said Tibor, a Framingham resident who has been part of the program since it began two decades ago.

The Framingham ESL program was launched in 1984 with 30 students. By 1989 there were six classes with 100 students and the program was forced to turn away another 60.

Now, there are eight morning ESL classes and one citizenship class held at the New Life Presbyterian Community Church; 22 ESL classes and a citizenship class at the Fuller Middle School; and three GED preparation classes on Monday and Wednesday nights at Keefe Technical School, all in Framingham. Tibor has a staff of 40.

But the waiting list is nearly nine times longer than in 1989.

Initially, registration was done on a first-come first-serve basis, but that changed to a lottery system in 1999, after Tibor arrived at 5 one morning and found that more than 100 people had slept on the lawn of Fuller Middle School to get a leg up on the list.

"One woman had bronchitis, one was coughing, and one was pregnant," said Tibor. "I remember thinking, 'This is not right.' "

Now Tibor is able to track the registrants, so after someone has gone through the lottery process five times, they are automatically invited to join the class. But until funding increases, the program will have to continue to turn people away, she said.

Some of the biggest contributors to the Framingham ESL program include Middlesex Bank, which has been running the Metrowest ESL fund-raising committee for the past seven years and has contributed $80,000 to $100,000 annually. They support six classes each year.

A lot of the employers that participate also end up hiring the students, said Tibor. Among them are TJ Maxx, Bernardi Auto Group, Framingham Cooperative Bank, Verizon, as well as smaller companies, such as Angel's Painting in Framingham.

The largest amount of funding, more than $400,000 a year, comes from the state Department of Education, which, Tibor said, holds the program to very strict accountability standards.

"We provide counseling to our students, have mandated hours for staff development, and are required to conduct three standardized tests a year," said Tibor.

Former students say that they would not be where they are today without Tibor and the program.

"Christine Tibor has been one of the best assets this city has had," said Fernando Castro, president of Income Tax Plus in Framingham. "It gives people the first step to have a better life in this country," he said of the program.

Castro took ESL classes in 1989 and 1990. He's had his own tax preparation business for the past 14 years.

Tibor's office is housed in the Fuller Middle School, the same building she walked as a teenager when it was Framingham South High School. She also attended St. Bridget School and the McCarthy School, where her father, Edward Convery, served as principal in the 1980s.

Tibor said there was a lot of diversity in Framingham when she was growing up. The largest groups came from Puerto Rico and the Azores.

"I remember driving through downtown Framingham with my father and seeing some areas that weren't in the best of shape and asking, 'Do people live there?' "

Tibor said her father explained that many of the residents were immigrants who were trying to make a better life.

"That really stuck with me," she said. "What I saw, and still see with our students, are people who choose to make tough, heart-wrenching choices, like the woman who came to this country to work so her family back home can eat; and others now working as house cleaners when they were dentists and engineers."

Tibor's appreciation for other cultures continued at Bridgewater State College, where she majored in education and spent a semester as a student teacher in Valencia, Spain. After college, teaching jobs were scarce, so when Tibor received a phone call to interview for a teaching position in Venezuela, she figured she should go just for the interview experience.

"I hadn't yet had a teaching interview and needed the practice. I had no intention of going to Venezuela."

But the interview went better than she anticipated, and after college graduation in 1979 she flew to Venezuela, where she spent two years teaching second grade at an international school.

When Tibor returned to the United States, she moved back to the family home in Framingham and took a job with an insurance company.

One evening she received a phone call from her former housemate in Venezuela who was teaching in Germany. She told Tibor that the school was looking for a teacher for the following year and asked if she was up for the adventure.

"I remember walking downstairs to tell my parents that I was moving to Hamburg, Germany," said Tibor.

She returned in 1984 with a husband, a Scotsman who had been in Germany working for BMW.

Tibor began teaching at the Charlotte A. Dunning Elementary School in Framingham and soon had her daughter, Maggie. Looking to pick up some extra cash for Christmas shopping, Tibor answered an ad for ESL teachers and decided to give it a try.

"My marriage didn't last, and I ended up as a single mother," said Tibor. At that point she was teaching second grade during the day and two ESL classes at night, as well as helping out at Framingham State College with a program for Japanese students. It was a very difficult time, and Tibor credits her parents and five siblings for all of their support.

As the ESL program grew, she opted to put all of her efforts into it. And now, Tibor said, "I have the most phenomenal teaching staff in the world."

She smiled as she recounted how her staff has gone above and beyond, like the time an 18-year-old student was preparing for his first American dance and asked his teacher, a woman in her mid-50s, to show him how to dance American. She did. Teachers have also been known to go with students on shopping excursions or accompany them to a doctor's appointment.

"Everyone who gets into that program is blessed," said former student Agnaldo DaCruz, 35, of Framingham. "It's like a family."

Tibor, who married a Framingham police officer, Bob Tibor, two years ago, no longer teaches but coordinates program planning, schedules classes, oversees staff development, researches and applies for grants, and works with potential financial supporters. In addition, Tibor collaborates with other community agencies to provide information and connections for students.

"We need these people here," Tibor said of the program's students. "We need this infusion of strength, character, and wisdom."

For more on the Framingham ESL program, log on to faesl.org.

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com

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