Elena Rivera attends her Monday-morning civics class religiously to learn the history of original 13 colonies, the Bill of Rights and the meaning behind the red, white and blue of the American flag.
The 90-year-old Mexican immigrant has been preparing for what may be one of the most critical exams she will ever have to take — the United States citizenship test.
“This is really important. It will give me the opportunity to vote,” Rivera said of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Rivera and more than two dozen elderly students in the City College of San Francisco’s citizenship courses offered at the 30th Street Senior Center are worried that when budget cuts eliminate the civics and English as a Second Language classes this spring, their chances to become American citizens will be cut as well.
Since the courses are not for credit, enrollment is open, which means students can add them during any point in the semester and continue attending as long as they want.
While deep state budget cuts have affected nearly every student population in California’s public schools, the impact on the elderly has received little attention. Yet hundreds are effected — by losing a range of services from citizenship and ESL classes to exercise and theater courses. City College’s Older Adult Program offers some 80 courses in more than 40 sites for people 55 years and older.
An administrator said the college plans to slash all off-campus courses, including courses conveniently located at the senior center near 30th and Dolores streets. A citizenship class will continue to be offered in the evening at the Mission campus.
The language courses represent more than a learning environment, seniors and administrators said. They’re a connection to others, an effort to stay nimble of mind and a way to participate in their community and county. And, if younger students skip classes, the seniors are always there.
“They’re very determined and very devoted at this age,” said instructor Elizabeth Silver. “They come every day, some not knowing their alphabet, and study until they can pass the citizenship test.”
Silver, who has been teaching at City College for 20 years, said the two-year community college has offered ESL, literacy and citizenship courses available at the senior center at 225 30th St. for nearly 30 years.
The students say it is friendship and their future that keeps them in classes.
“Because of our advanced age, we’re not able to attend classes at night. Many of us don’t want to be walking in the Mission when it’s dark,” Rivera said.
Student Jose Torres, 64, said that students have formed friendships that will be difficult to leave if the class is dismantled.
“Many have children who don’t live here. This is where they find people to speak with, to learn with,” Torres said.
Emma Prado, 70, said the citizenship classes are giving her and other classmates an opportunity to “do something for our lives and our future.”
On an average day, the citizenship and ESL classes have 24 to 30 students. The average age is 74, said Elizabeth Silver, the instructor.
The senior center serves about 3,200, of which more than 100 attend classes offered by the college each semester.
City College officials have said that approximately 530 classes will be cut this school year — that’s in addition to the 270 classes canceled in the fall. The cuts are across departments to cope with the college’s $18 to $20 million budget deficit.
“Next semester, there will be no literacy or ESL classes,” Silver told City College trustees recently. “Some of these classes are larger than many credit classes.”
In the past five years, when the program at the senior center was expanded, more than 50 elderly have become U.S. citizens, and dozens have improved their written and oral English skills through the classes.
Displayed on the wall of the classroom is a large poster with photos of seniors who became naturalized American citizens.
Alicia Cabrera, 85, is one of them.
“I became a citizen three years ago,” said Cabrera, who continues attending ESL courses at the senior center. “But what about the rest of my colleagues? They also want to learn.”