JANESVILLE

On paper, it’s hard to quantify the success of Faith Lutheran Church’s program that helps Spanish speakers earn their high school equivalency degrees.

The program has lost students since it first started in 2013.

Most of them leave before finishing because of family or job situations.

Right now, only three people regularly attend the church’s weekly Tuesday classes, said program leader Barb Becker.

But the program’s value is evident on the face of Daniela Sanchez. She’s determined to complete her General Education Degree, or GED, which would help her family and give her a sought-after educational accomplishment.

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Barb Becker sits on the floor with Daniela Sanchez's 3-year-old son Lazaro Sanchez as he plays with blocks Tuesday at Faith Lutheran Church in Janesville.

As Sanchez studied language arts on a laptop inside the church Tuesday, her 3-year-old son, Lazaro, played with blocks and toy animals nearby.

Known as Faith Literacy, the church’s GED classes are part of a larger network of resources serving Rock County’s Spanish speakers. Local leaders say those resources can encourage students to become more involved and strengthen the entire community.

GED classes at Faith Lutheran originally started in 2013 as a partnership between the church and The Literacy Connection, a Janesville nonprofit that closed in 2016. When the nonprofit shut down, the church decided to continue the classes as a form of outreach, Becker said.

Sanchez was one of the original students. The program has always functioned as one-on-one lessons rather than a traditional class.

Work changes and her pregnancy with Lazaro forced her to leave the class, but now she’s back and striving toward a GED.

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Daniela Sanchez gets her 3-year-old son Lazaro Sanchez a snack Tuesday at Faith Lutheran Church in Janesville.

A Chicago native who grew up in Mexico, Sanchez struggled with academics and dropped out in middle school to work. But her husband recently earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology, which has inspired her to continue studying.

“I told Barb I’m not going to stop this time. I’m going to do it,” Sanchez said. “I need to do something different, for me and my kids, to be a good example. I have to keep going.”

She would like to go to college eventually and score a job working with kids. She currently works as a custodian for a local day care, and the labor has started to take a toll, she said.

Besides the GED classes, other nonprofits in Janesville and Beloit offer English language classes or citizenship training. Stateline Literacy Council in Beloit offers all three.

The resources are essential to building unity at a time when racism and other hostilities toward Spanish speakers have become commonplace.

Rene Bue, chairwoman of the Janesville Police Department’s Latino Liaison Advisory Committee, said Faith Literacy’s declining enrollment is not an unusual story. Many programs or services geared toward Spanish speakers have seen fewer people in recent years.

A lot of that is due to fear—fear of being pulled over without a valid driver’s license, for example, and the unknown repercussions that come with that, Bue said.

But time is also an issue. Learning English and being an adult student are not easy tasks or commitments.

“It’s easy for language speakers who only speak English to say, ‘Oh, well, they should just learn English,’” Bue said. “It’s time-consuming and difficult to fit in with all the other things you have going on in the natural course of life.”

Becker said even if people start her class and have to leave, any education is worth something. They at least have more knowledge than what they started with.

Only a few of the several dozen students Becker has taught have actually completed their GEDs. Still, the skills and support system will help them whether they earn a diploma or not, she said.

“It’s not about quantity,” Becker said. “It’s more about, particularly in this political and social climate, I feel like we need to make sure that this population of people knows there are people out here who are on their side, who are willing to support them.”

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