Helping Immigrant Families Flourish

  • Prosperity
  • 1985

Sister Jennie Lechtenberg was a Catholic-school teacher who took a sabbatical to tutor low-achieving first- and second-graders in a poor Los Angeles barrio. Seeing that children whose parents lacked literacy skills struggled the most, she started an English class for the mothers and fathers. Two years later, in 1985, she formalized her swelling effort into the PUENTE Learning Center.

While serving on an education commission Lechtenberg met venture capitalist (and later L.A. mayor) Richard Riordan, who provided her school with a computer lab. Soon her classes for preschoolers, after-school children, and adults were bursting again. She took Riordan to see a potential building spot in the neighborhood, and he agreed to provide $2.1 million to buy it. PUENTE erected a high-tech building whose architecture aims to reflect not only the technology within but also the dignity of the people it serves—which explains why the neighborhood never allows it to be defaced with graffiti.

After the 1992 Rodney King riots, PUENTE was asked by the ARCO Foundation to set up a second campus in south central L.A. Double-wide-trailer classrooms were eventually replaced with another impressive building. English classes were offered on computers that also taught typing, providing a dual competency. Instruction in public speaking and in computer programming could also be taken.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation studied the effect of PUENTE’s preschool-readiness program and kindergarten charter school and found that “all of the students who entered preschool or kindergarten speaking little or no English ended the year functionally bilingual.” And 100 percent of their parents were either in adult classes or volunteering for PUENTE. Similarly, PUENTE’s high-school tutorials and SAT preparation course were found to yield above-average rates of high-school graduation, and boosts in SAT scores of as much as 240 points.

PUENTE also sees its multigenerational approach as a way to strengthen families, which are weakened when parents command less English than their children or can’t adequately support the family. Recently, PUENTE has responded to neighborhood needs by offering programs for unemployed and underemployed veterans. Many tens of thousands of southern California immigrants have now been eased into successful lives by the center.