Free Citizenship Classes Help Residents Get Ready for Test


SILVER SPRING (December 9, 2010)—Barnabus Nkemleke asks his mostly native-born students what they did over the weekend.

At first he receives only silence and tired faces. He reminds them that he'll assume they know everything if they don't participate and manages to coax a few hands into the air.

Monica Jacobi, who moved to the United States from Peru five years ago, tells the class that she spent her weekend working at Shady Grove Hospital—eight hours on Saturday and another 16 on Sunday. Nkemleke guides her through speaking to the class, encouraging her to use full sentences.

Jacobi is one of 25 students in an intermediate English class held at Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. The three-hour class meets three nights a week and focuses on helping immigrants practice their English and study American civics in preparation for their citizenship tests. Montgomery College has been providing classes like this for almost 10 years, but this year they're free thanks to a $100,000 federal grant.

The citizenship test includes a segment each of writing, reading and speaking. Applicants must then correctly answer at least six of 10 civics questions.

Luis Santo, one of Nkemleke's students, came to the United States from the Dominican Republic. His family will be joining him in just a few weeks and he can barely contain his excitement.

For him, citizenship could mean resuming his career.

"Well, I want to vote. And I'd like to work for the government, for a police department or something," he said. "In my country, I was a police officer for 12 years and I want to bring my experience to this country. I want to care for this country."

Without tuition, the college has seen enrollment for its preparation courses jump 40 percent this semester and expects even more students when the next session begins in January. Classrooms that used to have four or five students in them now have 15 or 20.

"We are fabulous," said Nancy Newton, smiling. As the Citizenship Grant Program director, Newton used to teach English to adults and now oversees all aspects of the courses.

She worked with her assistant and another administrator to write the grant proposal earlier this year and visits classes to assess the instructors she's hired.

"I think we just have a very solid reputation, and in Montgomery County there's an immense need for help for immigrants," she said.

Newton is originally from England and came to the United States for a one-year visit.

"That was 15 years ago," she said, laughing.

She enrolled at Georgetown University to earn her master's degree and became an English tutor for a Japanese family's small child.

"And I realized that whilst I did not like children very much, I loved the idea of helping others learn a language," she said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services awarded the grant to the college through its Direct Services Grant Program. The college was one of 75 organizations to receive a portion of a $7.8 million-budget dedicated to such programs this year.

With the money, Montgomery College told the immigration agency it would be able to help 150 to 200 legal permanent residents a year.

"That's probably quite a low number," Newton said. "With the need here, we'll probably serve a lot more."

Newton said she almost feels selfish for so thoroughly enjoying her work, especially when the college can offer its courses for free. But there's no guarantee the grant will be renewed next year.

"If we can't get the grant money, of course we'll try to find other sources of funding. Ideally, we'd like to get it renewed," she said. "We may have to go back to charging tuition."

After paying $675 to file an application for citizenship, the old $100-per-class fees are just too much, Newton said.

At Kennedy High School, Nkemleke encourages his students to practice talking to one another and helps them study the 100 civics questions that could be asked during their exam.

His teaching style includes a healthy dose of humor and encouragement.

He begins to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" while talking about the American flag before admitting he's forgotten half the words. He regularly scans the room to make sure everyone participates.

"The most rewarding thing is being able to help somebody to find his or her way," he said. "I made it and if I can pull somebody up that makes me even happier."

Nkemleke came to the United States from Cameroon and enrolled in a master's program so he could teach English to speakers of other languages.

"If you don't speak English," he said, "you don't find your way in this country."

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