The Language Ladder : Immigrants: Hundreds of students enter the gates of Van Nuys High School. There, for 50 cents apiece, they doggedly pursue their dreams with words.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four nights a week, hundreds of immigrants enter the crowded gates of Van Nuys High School in a scene that repeats itself at public schools across the city.

The English as a Second Language program of the Los Angeles Unified School District has about 80,000 students this year, making it the largest in the nation. For 50 cents apiece, it offers immigrants a gateway to their dreams.

Many of the students work long hours in tough jobs. Many live in a shadow-world in which their contact with the rest of society is limited by their language, culture, economics and immigration status.

"In Los Angeles, affluence brushes up against non-affluence," said teacher Andrea Beard, whose Level 3 English class of the Van Nuys Community Adult School has met in Room 508 for five weeks this semester. "Many of my students work in service positions. Gardening, parking cars, taking care of children. They are the support structure for a very affluent society. Sometimes they are thought of as non-people. . . . I have tremendous respect for them."

ESL classes such as Beard's serve numerous functions. They represent educational opportunity, a social arena, a support group, a cultural exchange. From 7 to 9:30 p.m., Room 508 is an oasis where everyone--Armenian doctors, Guatemalan mechanics, East European political refugees, Mexican construction workers--is equal. Together they share episodes in their collective story of hardship and hope.

"This is the time we have to make our lives better," said Armando Gomez, a 36-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, who works in a clothing store doing alterations. (He was interviewed in Spanish, as were other Spanish-speakers quoted in this article.)

A father of three, a shoemaker by training, a voracious reader conversant with Shakespeare and "Uncle Tom's Cabin," Gomez makes the six-mile trip from work to school to his Sepulveda apartment by bicycle. Like many other students, he does not own a car.

Gomez is usually one of the first of the 40 students to arrive, his bike gliding through the dark passages between classroom buildings.

Gomez's family shares a two-bedroom apartment with three relatives. They arrived in the United States about a year ago. At first they slept in a garage, then on the floor of another family's dining room. Gomez often works seven days a week, but he enjoys his craft and dealing with customers at the store, especially compared with what he used to do.

"I collected bottles and cans to live," Gomez said. "It was hard. It made me more tenacious than ever. . . . I want to speak English perfectly. I want to read books. I want to pick up a book and understand everything it says."

Gomez and his classmates are taking on adjectives, pronouns and the present continuous tense ("I am running"). They have come far. More than half of all ESL students are in the first two levels of the six-level program. Many stick around only until they pick up enough to survive.

"By Level 3 they want to move ahead to the next step," Beard said. "They might want to pursue a better job, to become a manager where they work. Some want to continue the professions they had in their own country. . . . There is more self-consciousness. They know enough to know how much they don't know."

The cast of characters in Room 508 reflects the makeup of the citywide ESL program, which is 85% Latino. Young, blue-collar men from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala predominate in the classes, which are funded by the Los Angeles Unified School District with a budget of $57 million a year.

Julio Alvarado, who studied philosophy in El Salvador, builds the camera carts known in the film industry as dollies.

Laz Romo, a wiry 28-year-old with streaks of gray in his hair, starts work at a Santa Clarita construction site at 5 each morning. In Room 508 he sits wearily at his desk, wrapped in a leather jacket, trying to concentrate.

Joaquin Ortiz, who always sits in the front row, works at a factory that produces microfilm. His wife and daughter were forced to return to Mexico after his wife had a costly operation. At the moment, Ortiz explains quietly, he is living in a garage that he rents from the owner of the adjacent house for $130 a month.

"Sometimes it's too cold, sometimes it's too hot," said Ortiz, 32, who studied to be a technician in the textile industry in Mexico. "There are things that your economic situation requires you to do."

Ortiz feels increasing pressure from his family to rejoin them. But he said: "I don't want to go back yet. I want to bring something back. It doesn't have to be money. Even if it's not money, I want to go back knowing a new language, new knowledge, experiences, something."

Other students are from Cuba, Peru, Panama and Nicaragua. Zoraida Guerrero, 33, came to Los Angeles from war-torn Managua in 1980. Her husband would not let her attend English classes. He wanted her at home with the family. The couple separated four years ago. Now Guerrero, shy but resolute, wants to improve her English-speaking for the citizenship test.

"The written part is no problem," Guerrero said. "The oral test scares me."

Guerrero came to Los Angeles across the Mexican border without documents. She spent four anxious years before becoming a legal resident. Fear permeated her life, even in moments as simple as catching the bus.

"In 1980, immigration was going around doing a lot of raids at bus stops in the Valley," she said. "You think that it's like the police in your country, where all of a sudden they come and take you away. I would try to hide near the bus stop or get someone to watch for the bus for me."

Having worked her way up to assistant supervisor in a Northridge garment factory, Guerrero wants to study a trade, perhaps computer programming. She dreams of working as an interior designer.

Guerrero also wants to help her three children with their homework. One of the main reasons she and the others say they came to the United States is their children's future. The immigrant tradition of self-sacrifice endures. Guerrero is giving up hours she could spend with her family.

"Every sacrifice has its reward," said Guerrero, who makes a point of practicing English with students who don't speak Spanish. "A lot of people stay home and waste time at night watching soap operas. I could do that, but I have my mother and sister to help, and my children. I don't want to waste time."

Though they are taught entirely in English, there is an undercurrent of Spanish in most ESL classes--murmured comments, questions and jokes. After misidentifying the caricature of a long-haired Beethoven as a woman during a workbook exercise, Joel Coronado of Guatemala drew chuckles when he said in Spanish, "Well, he looks like my aunt."

After Latinos, East Europeans form the second-largest group in Room 508--four Soviet Armenians, a Soviet Jew, a Romanian and a Hungarian. There are two Koreans, an Iranian and Herasahan Kader of Bangladesh, a 27-year-old housewife who sits in front next to Ortiz and aspires to learn to drive and study banking when her 8-month-old baby is older.

Relationships throughout the room are decidedly amiable.

"The cross-cultural friendships are some of the most interesting," said Beard. A Syrian man and Nicaraguan woman who met in one of her classes married recently. "Some classes gel more than others. They become each other's families."

One European who jokes in broken Spanish with classmates is Zorel Fodoreanu, 41, an industrial chemist from Romania. He arrived nine months ago. The gentle, intense Fodoreanu tells grim stories of persecution and desolation in his city, Cluj-Napoca, during the Ceausescu dictatorship.

The first memory of Fodoreanu's life is vomiting after secret police stormed into his house and arrested his father when Fodoreanu was 2 years old. He says he was systematically harassed because of his anti-Communist politics and imprisoned in 1977 in a psychiatric hospital. There he says he met Alexander Racolta, an opera singer who later died from the results of torture.

"They destroy this man," Fodoreanu said disgustedly.

Fodoreanu smokes cigarettes outside during the 15-minute daily break. He works as a handyman and lives with his sister, a former professional opera singer who escaped from Romania 10 years ago and manages an apartment building next to the San Diego Freeway. He is seeking political asylum.

His application to bring his wife and two sons to the United States has been approved. But getting permission for their actual departure is agonizingly slow. Fodoreanu chafes at the process of starting over, an impatience shared by other professionals in the class. Nonetheless, he expresses childlike, infectious wonder at commonplace features of American society he regards as luxuries--supermarkets, public transportation, school crossing guards.

"We don't know the truth about the United States in Romania," he said. "They think it is savage country, guns in the streets, everything expensive, immoral. But I see it is rich, safe. I pay only 50 cents for learning English. I pay only $10 for driver's license. In my country takes one year to get driver's license.

"Americans who complain about here, I give a great diet program. They should go to Romania one month for free, see what it is like."

Facing the array of cultures and experiences is like traveling around the world without leaving the room, Beard said. A short, curly-haired woman of 36, Beard clearly enjoys her work, maintaining a simultaneously controlled and cheerful atmosphere.

Beard uses numerous strategies to motivate her students after their long work day. She tosses a ball around the room during group exercises. She makes the students get up and mingle in games where they are each given half of a proverb and have to find the other half, after discarding amusing combinations like "All that glitters is the root of all evil." She coaxes them through the agony that forming a simple, complete sentence can produce when 40 other adults are watching and waiting.

Good teachers become trusted figures. Current and former students often stop by to say hello to Beard or to ask her for advice. At the beginning of the semester, Fodoreanu asked her to call the U.S. military to find out if he could become a citizen more rapidly by volunteering. She reminded him of the dangers of the Persian Gulf War. He said it didn't matter. Beard learned that he was too old to join the military in any case.

When she crouched by his desk before class and told him, Fodoreanu nodded and said, "OK," four or five times.

"I share their frustrations," Beard said. "There are some who have misfortune after misfortune. There are some who work two jobs, sleep for a couple of hours and come to English class. . . . I need to draw a line somewhere, or my whole life could be devoted to helping them."

The rewards, for both teacher and students, come at unexpected moments.

Two weeks ago during a discussion, Yeva Shabsis, a 28-year-old economist from the Soviet Union, found herself telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood in her mellifluous accent. Shabsis has been in the United States two months, and she looked almost surprised at the sentences spilling out of her. The others followed along, grinning, enthralled.

Beard sometimes brings her guitar and teaches lyrics of songs, which results in the peaceful sight of a roomful of people singing "Blowin' in the Wind." The self-consciousness of speaking alone fades when the students sing together.

On a recent Thursday, Beard and about 15 students went on their first after-class outing. They had a nondescript pizza parlor on Van Nuys Boulevard to themselves. Rain drummed the windows. The guitar was passed around. An Armenian named Arman Petrosian turned out to be a virtuoso, segueing from flamenco to a rowdy Russian street song that had everyone roaring whether they understood or not. Gomez played Mexican folk songs. His countrymen joined in energetically. Toasts were drunk in various languages.

"Miller," said Artur Manukian, hoisting a beer glass. "This is only kind of beer I like." The 26-year-old Armenian doctor later expounded on an article on the confused state of Soviet political thought that he wrote and submitted to famed dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Commenting later on the evening, Gomez said: "It was great. Sometimes it's difficult to make friendships in class because of people's schedules. There is little time."

Lack of time, compounded by the pressures of work and family, makes for a transient student population. Those who have not completed high school in their countries face added difficulties, and 27% of ESL students entering Level 1 in the city program are not literate. Classes shrink as the five-month semester progresses.

Latecomers soon will not have to sit on the counter in the back of the room, predicted Guerrero, the Nicaraguan factory worker.

"Wait until the spring," she said with the air of a survivor. "You will see how the class gets smaller."

Faces from the first week have already disappeared. Shabsis, the Soviet economist, told her new friends a few days ago that she may drop the class because she has passed an entrance exam for a night computer accounting course at the Ord Institute. She will study there with a loan from a Jewish community group.

"I like this class," Shabsis said at the pizza parlor. "I like students. I like teacher. I am bitter."

Shabsis' parents are separated. She emigrated with a visa obtained through her father, a Los Angeles resident for 11 years. Shabsis studies English all day. It is clear that she wants very much to get a job so she can help pay for her mother to join her.

"Bad atmosphere in Russia now," she said. "Everyone wants to leave. I want to bring my mother as soon as I can."

A wide assortment of dreams comes together in Room 508. Some are years out of reach. Others are more tangible and immediate. As the semester continues, each completed class represents a small victory for the students who keep coming back and keep going forward, four nights a week.

FACES IN THE CLASS

Zorel Fodoreanu

The Romanian industrial chemist set up a small business as a handyman after his arrival nine months ago. Fodoreanu, 41, is waiting for his wife and two children to get permission to join him. He has applied for political asylum. He remembers that when he was 2 years old he cried and vomited after the secret police burst into his house and arrested his father because of his anti-Communist politics. "This is the first image of my life." In a class assignment, he wrote: "In my country, I was an old man. Here, I feel like a young man again."

Zoraida Guerrero

An assistant supervisor in a garment factory, Guerrero, 33, is from Managua, Nicaragua, and has lived in Los Angeles for 11 years. She has three children. "I don't miss my country. I have my family here. This is the country that has opened its doors to us. There is work here. If you don't work here, it's because you don't want to. Every sacrifice has its reward. A lot of people stay home and waste time at night watching soap operas. I don't want to waste time."

Artur Manukian

A doctor from Soviet Armenia, Manukian, 26, decided to leave after the 1988 Armenian earthquake, when he was among doctors from around the world who treated the injured. "We saw how we should work, from the foreign doctors. We saw that our medicine is not different because of people. Is different because of equipment. We know the theoretical. But we hadn't equipment, hadn't medicine. Why must my life depend on politics? Medicine is special field. Every person has a right to accept best medicine. Should not depend on politics, in United States or Africa or Soviet Union."

Yeva Shabsis

Shabsis, 28, has been in Los Angeles two months. She is from the city of Socha, on the Black Sea in the Soviet Union. An economist, she worked in planning for a large department store. She is Jewish and plans to study computer accounting with financial help from a local Jewish community group. Shabsis takes three English classes a day. "I like the people in Los Angeles, all the different kinds of people. All people are very friendly. I never hear that my English is bad. But I know this is true."

Herasahan Kader

Kader, 27, came from Bangladesh eight years ago. She lives in Van Nuys with her husband, a computer engineer, and their 8-month-old son. Kader comes from "village country" near Dacca, the nation's capital, and describes her homeland as dangerous. "Lots of poverty, and very crowded. Every year is a bad flood." She studied law for a year in her country. She does not drive. After learning English, she wants to get her driver's license and study international banking.

Armando Gomez

Gomez, 36, was a shoemaker in Guadalajara, Mexico, and now is a clerk and tailor in an East Valley clothing store. "Shoes are like bread. It is a good trade, because everyone needs shoes. But here I learned to do alterations, sewing." Gomez has a wife and three small children. He did not complete high school but he says he has always loved to read. He plays the guitar. "I was fortunate. We were seven children. No father, but thank God we all turned out well. Our mother tried to put us in good schools. I had good teachers. I want to read books in English. I want to pick up a book and understand everything it says. I am hungry to learn English."

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