A police officer, veterans services worker, volunteer coordinator and personnel administrator walk into a classroom ...
If that sounds like the setup for a joke, it isn't.
The four employees from the city of Holyoke did that, two nights a week for the entire Fall semester. They walked out with a grasp of conversational Spanish and are now better able to execute their jobs.
Yesterday, in a small ceremony at City Hall, Holyoke mayor Alex Morse presented each of them with a certificate for completing "Conversational Spanish for Municipal Employees (including Interpersonal Cultural Norms)," a noncredit class HCC ran at the Picknelly Adult & Family Education on Maple Street.
Receiving the certificates -- and letters of commendation for their personnel files -- were police chief James Neiswanger; Maureen Tisdell, from the office of Veterans Services; Carla Neiswanger, volunteer coordinator at the Holyoke Senior Center; and Robert Judge, personnel administrator, who helped coordinate the class.
"I've taken Spanish before," said Judge, "but only in a classroom where grammar was the emphasis, and it didn't stick."
This course was different, he said. The textbook they used was called "Spanish at Work," and emphasized common Spanish words, greetings and phrases that would be immediately useful. Judge said he also appreciated that the instructor, HCC adjunct Harry Rodriguez, talked about the cultures and dialects of different Spanish-speaking populations of the city.
He said it was important that municipal employees feel comfortable talking to everyone in a city where nearly 50 percent of the population is Latino.
"Just to be able to say a few words, a sentence or two, or to ask a question tells people you recognize that their language and culture is as important as yours," said Judge.
He said the course was no pushover, and that the workers deserve a lot of credit for attending a training session from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. after working an eight-hour day. They also had homework.
"There's a lot of work to learning a language, and I think folks were really surprised," said Ken White, dean of HCC Community Services, who organized the class, which was paid for by the city and free to participants, "but it is very helpful that Mayor Morse is very supportive of getting employees to be able to do their jobs better, and he's willing to put the resources behind it."
White said HCC has run the course once before for the city and twice for Holyoke Medical Center.
"We bring the course to them and schedule it around their employees' work day," White said.
Morse, who is himself bilingual, said encouraging municipal workers to learn Spanish is part of a larger push to integrate city government.
"We've constantly tried to diversify our workforce by getting more people of color working for the city in all positions and all different ranks," he said, "and for those frontline people who can demonstrate that they want to be more culturally competent, it just sends a message that we value every resident of the city, no matter what they look like or where they come from or what language they speak."
PHOTOS by CHRIS YURKO: (Left) Holyoke mayor Alex Morse awards a certificate to personnel administrator Robert Judge after he completed an HCC course that teaches introductory Spanish to city workers. (Right) Holyoke mayor Alex Morse awarded certicates to city workers who completed a Spanish class HCC runs for municipal employees. From left to right: Robert Judge; police chief James Neiswanger; Ken White, HCC dean of Community Services; Alex Morse; HCC Spanish instructor Harry Rodriguez; Maureen Tisdell, from the Holyoke Veterans Services Department; and Carla Neiswanger, volunteer coordinator for the Holyoke Council on Aging. (Thumbnail) Holyoke police chief James Neiswanger accepts his certificate of completion from mayor Alex Morse.