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A screenshot of students in Boulder Valley’s Family Literacy program attending an online GED class on Dec. 16.
A screenshot of students in Boulder Valley’s Family Literacy program attending an online GED class on Dec. 16.
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Esther Goyanes earned a high school diploma in her home country of Costa Rica, but wants the English equivalent.

She has two adult children, along with a 16-month-old daughter who “photobombed” the recent virtual GED class — to the delight of her teacher and classmates — that she’s taking through the Boulder Valley School District’s Family Literacy program.

“I want to go to college,” said the 43-year-old. “It’s important to know the rules of how to speak and write in English.”

She moved to the United States in 2016 from Costa Rica at the urging of her cousin after a bad divorce. Her mom and her ex-husband both told her that she wasn’t “good for studies” and should concentrate on being a housewife and raising a family.

But in her GED class, teacher Celeste Perey-Archer recognized her dyslexia, providing helpful study tips and helping her understand why she previously struggled in school, she said. Her current husband, whom she married two years ago, encouraged her to get her GED.

“He says, ‘You are strong, you are smart, you can do it,’” she said. “I want to prove to myself that I can do this.”

Local parents and grandparents, most of them immigrants, are learning English and earning GEDs through the Boulder Valley School District’s 22-year-old Family Literacy program. The program, supported by the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act and federal Title 1 program, is provided free of charge.

“We’re here to help eradicate illiteracy and help people figure out how to better their lives and the lives of their children,” said Missy Cowan, Boulder Valley Family Literacy program coordinator. “We want to help them figure out their goals. You just don’t stop and say, ‘I can’t.’ You can. You can keep going.”

Prior to the pandemic, classes were offered at Boulder Valley’s five Title 1 elementary schools, with up to 400 people enrolled each year. Babies could attend with their parents, while toddlers through 5-year-olds attended concurrent early childhood classes. Older students, through fifth grade, received tutoring and homework support.

“Our parents showed their children that they valued education,” Cowan said. “The kids worked on the homework, and the parents worked on the homework.”

The classes went virtual after the pandemic hit, with about 75 people currently enrolled.

Cowan said she’s working on moving to a hybrid model, noting some participants preferred virtual classes because they’re easier to attend. One woman is continuing her classes while spending time in her home country, Iran. Another was able to join the class while visiting family in Japan over the summer.

While the early childhood and homework support classes aren’t taking place virtually, other program supports are continuing.

Those include connecting participants with community resources such as food banks and bringing in speakers from community organizations. The classes also include lessons on K-12 school expectations, as well as cultural celebrations to encourage the participants’ pride in their heritages and native languages.

“We teach them how to find the confidence to be a part of their child’s education,” Cowan said. “We’re teaching them they have a voice, and we want to hear it. It is so much deeper than just English classes and GED classes.”

Lafayette’s Esther Peter, 31, is one of the program’s success stories. A refugee from South Sudan, she and her family relocated to the area in 2013.

Esther Peter works in her GED class in Longmont with Tonja Yelton, of Workforce Boulder County in December 2015. (Daily Camera file photo)

It took roughly a decade before they made it to America, in a journey for Peter that zigzagged across thousands of miles and included attending school and working as an office assistant for the United Nations. She also had two daughters who she left with family members in Africa when she resettled here. She hasn’t seen them since, though she’s planning a reunion visit soon.

Here, she found work as a hotel housekeeper. The first time she enrolled in a GED program, she dropped out to concentrate on making money to send to her daughters. After her son, now 6, was born, she enrolled again.

“As I think about my children, I need to be better for them,” she said.

She took GED classes through both Boulder County Workforce and Boulder Valley’s Family Literacy program. The family literacy teachers, she said, became “like a family to me. When I think of how far I have come, it’s like a miracle.”

Once she earned her GED, she enrolled at Front Range Community College, where she earned her associate’s degree in business in 2019 and started a small catering company, Akilhilu Mix. Now, she’s in the business school at the University of Colorado Boulder. She said she’s still deciding if she wants to continue and earn a master’s degree after graduating or focus on her work in the food industry.

She shared her story with a recent virtual GED class, urging the current students to keep pushing themselves.

“There is a lot of support out there,” she said. “When you start to feel sorry for yourself, ask what are you planning on doing with your life.”

GED student Mariathas Solomon, who was born in Sri Lanka, was a custodian in the Boulder Valley School District for 20 years before recently retiring. At 69, he said, he decided he wanted to earn his GED.

With 10 siblings growing up in Sri Lanka, he said, he wasn’t able to continue his education or learn English as well as he wanted. He lived with his family in Switzerland for 10 years before moving to the United States at the urging of his four children. He now has three grandchildren.

“The GED classes, it’s an opportunity I didn’t get in the country where I was born,” he said. “It’s a great program. They are teaching us at a high level. I am thirsty to learn.”

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