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English Classes Cancelled
Singtao Chinese Daily
April 16, 2003

The Committee on the Elderly of the City Council held a public hearing yesterday (15th) regarding the cancellation of English and citizenship classes at senior centers throughout the city due to budget cuts at the Department of the Aging. A number of Chinese social service organizations sent representatives to the meeting to express their dismay at the gradual termination of such instruction, a process that began in January. They emphasize the needs of many elderly who have been relying on these classes to prepare for citizenship testing.

Qian Guoqing, an English instructor at the Qiyinghui Senior Center in Chinatown, was one of those who addressed the committee. He has been teaching English at the center for nearly three years, and has seen forty seven of his elderly pupils successfully obtain their American citizenship. He said that many of the older Chinese immigrants did not even have the chance to study English when they first arrived in the United States, and for them the classes offered at the center were a much appreciated opportunity.

He added that aside from their inability to pay for courses at regular language schools themselves, the elderly were also unsuited for the level of instruction at such institutions. With age comes a weakened memory; it is quite impossible to grasp a basic knowledge of English, an entirely new tongue, in the mere 20 weeks that most of these outside classes last. They require unhurried, constant reinforcement in order to attain understanding.

Ma Guozhu, an 80-year-old immigrant at the center, has been in this country for nearly 30 years. He said that one of his remaining wishes now that he is in his old age is to finally become a U.S. citizen; the classes at the center will help him realize this dream.

The Brooklyn Chinese Council, the Renrui Center in Chinatown, the city Department of the Aging and the Manhattan Borough President also sent representatives to the hearing to speak up. Deputy Director of the Department of the Aging, Sally Renfro, mentioned that since 1996, when reform at the Federal level barred non-citizens from receiving public assistance and food stamps, the City Council has been allocating local funds towards the English and citizenship classes at some of the city’s senior centers.

Under this plan, 38 centers continued to provide instruction to encourage the elderly to learn English, obtain some degree of independence and perhaps citizenship as well. In 2000, the department set aside $500,000 for these classes, but in 2001, the City Council cut that amount in half; last year, funding was completely cancelled.

Renfro said that her department recognizes the importance of the programs to the elderly, but pointed out that starting in 1997, Congress revived some social welfare benefits for non-citizens, and in 1998, food stamps for non-citizens. The Department of the Aging is subject to city finances, but will try its best to keep the classes through alternative approaches, one of which involves the United Federation of Teachers sending out retired teachers to provide afternoon English instruction.

Brooklyn Chinese Council Assistant Director He Jinxuan remarked that the English classes his organization provides already lost city funding in January, but for the benefit of the elderly, it used its own money to continue providing them. The city also began a study in March, and indicated that it might divert resources from the Department of Youth Services, but as of yet there have been no additional developments. She said that even if classes were to be provided in the afternoons, it would inconvenience the many seniors who spend that time at home looking after grandchildren, and many others who would be unable to concentrate so late in the day.

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