November 6, 1993
By Yolanda Reynolds
English a Second language students, who are attending classes at the privately owned and operated Escuela Popular fear that their school will be closed by City Council action. The Escuela Popular, located onKammerer Ave, in east San Jose, is the creation of Lidia Reguerin.
Reguerin, a credentialed teacher, opened the school after years of teaching English as a Second Language at a number of local community colleges. Reguerin graduated from Stanford University in 1966. Following her graduation, Reguerin was a “part time” instructor at Canada College for eleven years, at De Anza for twelve years and Evergreen Valley College for one year. Prior to coming to the United States, Reguerin taught English As A Second Language in her native Bolivia for eleven years.
Reguerin and her school have recently run into a number of problems. Among the problems are complaints from the neighbors that there are too many cars, too much noise and trash all about.
The school building according to city documents, was formerly a fruit packing and storage warehouse that was built in 1899 and used for that purpose until 1976. For a year it stood vacant and from 1979 to 1988 it was used for the storage and maintenance of golf carts,” according to the memo.
Lydia left teaching at the colleges and became involved in offering classes for “amnesty” persons who are seeking the required 40 hours of classroom instruction necessary to qualify for US. citizenship.
Sylvia Gallegos, an Aide to Councilwoman Blanca Alvarado, says that their office is concerned about inadequate and unsafe conditions at the school site.
According to City reports, the “large metal clad, wood-framed warehouse style structure (is) in dilapidated condition.” It states that the “bathroom fails to meet any plumbing, electrical, or (city) building code(s)”. The building is drafty and doesn’t hide its original use as a shed.
A memo from Gary Schoennauer, Director of the San Jose Planning Department dated June 24, cites numerous other violations but adds that there were so many other violations that the department used a camcorder to record the problems.
The San Jose Fire Department also sent a memo regarding ﬁre code requirements that the school’s proprietor had “failed to meet.”
Reguerin says “my failure to take care of getting the proper permits has been my downfall.” Reguerin says that what she most wants to do is to dedicate her life to the service of the community.
Indeed, it is inspiring to meet the students, who are still eager to learn even after working 12 hour days at their jobs and then going to the school to sit for another two hours through the demanding language instruction.
What is evident is a real enthusiasm and determination on the part of the students. There was hardly an empty seat in any of the four classrooms at the school. The students range in age from grandparents to others in their late teens.
Rosaura Santos, a grandmother with her graying hair neatly tied in a “chongo” at the nape of her neck, shared her feelings about the instruction at the Escuela classes; saying that not only was she studying English so that she would be able to communicate with her grandchildren, all of whom spoke English, but to acquire the ability to read, write and speak English which will enable her to feel involved as a part of the larger San Jose community. Santos is very anxious to become a citizen and to obtain the right to vote. She has lived in San Jose for many years.
Patricia Flores a young mother, says that, unlike other ESL teachers, her ESL instructors at the Escuela Popular are very diligent in providing bilingual instruction. This, the students say, helps enormously in facilitating learning and the understanding of what is going on.
Another student, Marta Salmero, says that this school offers the flexibility she needs in order to attend classes. Salmero says that her work schedule requires her to work late on two days of the week. This is no problem for her a school instruction since, on those days, she attends classes in the morning instead of the evening.
There are many men enrolled as well. The classes are good sized but small enough for individual attention. The students are very helpful to each other and seem apply their new language skills to their own work or experience.
In speaking to the instructors, it is evident that they too drew great inspiration from their eager students. One of their instructors San Juana Ochoa who is a former student of Reguerin, continued her education and, after becoming fully credentialed by the State, returned to work at the Escuela as a teacher.
Since June, Reguerin’s problems have escalated. First a contract that she had with the United Cambodian Community Inc., for offering the ESL classes, ended. Until then, she and her; instructors were paid by the United Cambodian lnc. Since June the school has been operating with the small monthly stipend the students pay to attend classes at the Escuela.
Reguerin and her family are attempting to purchase the building and property on Kammerer Ave. in the expectation of remodeling the existing building.
The City does not believe that the building can be salvaged for this purpose which is causing problems for Reguerin who is convinced that the building can be repaired, rather than having her incur a $700.000.00 debt by constructing a new building.
Reguerin says that City policy will allow her to use the site, but only for other purposes, such as providing childcare and parenting classes and always providing that building code requirements are met.
The City has encouraged Reguerin to move her classes to other sites, preferably to sites zoned for schools. Reguerin says that she will soon be moving her evening classes to Lee Matson, a nearby elementary school in the Alum Rock District.
Reguerin says that when she first became involved in subcontracting in 1990 with the United Cambodian Community Inc., the ESL clases were then held at La Trinidad United Church. The overﬂow enrollment from that location was served by setting up classes in the old fruit packing shed.
Reguerin says that she is not worried about a catastrophe at the building on Kammerer because, she says, that ever during the earthquake there was no damage to the building. Reguerin says that, until June, she did have liability and fire insurance and that she has already applied for liability insurance for the school for when the classes move to Lee Matson.
The property on Kammerer is much cleaner now and some of the activities that had formerly been allowed have now been curtailed.
Reportedly the neighbors of the school were especially inconvenienced by guests at the school site who would park along the residential streets that adjoin the school. Reguerin says that her students now park on the school’s property and do not park their cars along the street in front of the nearby residences.
Reportedly some of the neighbors were especially critical of the school’s appearance, a product of the Barrio Art Gallery a group that works with youth and, over the years, has allowed the students to spray paint the exterior art in what is now a sort of “baroque” graffiti style. Some in the community see this painting as an “eyesore” while others say this is a style of “barrio art.”
Though there is controversy over the details of the school operation, the faithful attendance at the ESL classes, as well as the buildings use by many San Joseans of the building for Quinceañeras, as a meeting hall, and for anniversary celebrations or other holidays, particularly Mexican holidays, demonstrates that there is a community need that is being met by Reguerin.
Gallegos says that City Hall recognizes the good work and otherwise, considering the code violations and complaints, would have long ago shut down the school. She adds, “I hope that they quickly find a solution – can you imagine if something bad should happen and then people would say that we did do nothing.”
It is ironic that recycling a building and space to meet a genuine need can be so costly and that for many things there are rules and regulations albeit bothersome but necessary making it very costly and preventing an easy conversion of the structure to a new use.
Reguerin is worried but not daunted and hopes that she will qualify for continued funding from the Federal Government.
Reguerin says that she has a number of architects who are working with her to ﬁnd the design and construction solution required to remodel the old packing shed and to comply with the City’s building and safety codes.
Helping her in this is a young man, whose family lives next to the school, who recently graduated from the University of California School of Architecture. His name is Jose Sanchez. Sanchez, says that he is challenged by the project and also encouraged because, he says, he has signatures of neighbors who wish to see the school continue at its present site.
Reguerin says that she charges her students $20 to $30 dollars a month for their instruction and that for those that find these fees impossible, the instruction is free.
Reguerin says that she has taught between 4 and 5 thousand students. If the current classes are similar to all of the others, the students are determined to become U.S. citizens and immediately after they accomplish that, they say that they are going to register to vote. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for many who have immigrated to the United States has been the lack of available ESL classes, as well as, the cost of instruction and the lack of scheduling flexibility and child care – all considerations that the Escuela Popular accommodates, Reguerin says.
Time and money are a problem for the continued operation of the school at its present location. Whatever happens to the school in the future is uncertain but what is certain is that there is a need for the type of instruction and program offered at La Escuela Popular. © La Oferta Newspaper.