LITTLE VILLAGE — When Connie Morales isn't working or looking after her three children, she goes to Instituto del Progreso Latino to learn English.
The twice-a-week classes barely fit into her schedule, but Morales comes to the center so she can better help her kids with schoolwork, excel at her job as a grocery store cashier and hopefully graduate to a better job.
"It's important for my children and my job," she said. "Sometimes they need help with homework. Sometimes a customer doesn't speak Spanish and asks for a price check."
Morales and many other immigrants in her situation turn to the Instituto because of its work in educating immigrant populations. That mission, as well as its recent breakthroughs in the field, is one of the reasons its president, Juan Salgado, was just awarded the MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," one of 24 recipients this year.
Salgado's goal is not just to teach English to immigrants, but to make sure the American dream is achievable for them.
"You get people coming here looking for a job, and we say to them, 'Why not have a career?'” Salgado said.
The Instituto del Progreso Latino, or Instituto, is a nonprofit that seeks to educate and empower Chicago's Latino community. Its education model is uniquely built to achieve these goals: It operates two charter high schools specifically for these populations, as well as adult education programs that specifically work to get Latinos in better-paying, in-demand jobs.
"We’re about creating new and better ways of taking people who have been overlooked or underserved by the educational systems and getting that right for them here, and demonstrating that it can be right for them here," Salgado said.
"I'm in hiding"
Two days after his genius grant was announced, Salgado had slipped from his one office in the high school in Little Village to the administrative offices across the street.
"I come here when I try to get a lot of work done," he said.
His cellphone was constantly buzzing, and a call was coming into the front office that a community leader was at the other building requesting an audience. Salgado apologized for not being available, and said that he would find time soon.
"My approach is totally community-oriented," Salgado said. "I have an open-door policy. That won't change."
But some aspects of his work life have changed since the announcement of the genius grant, given annually to artists, scientists, writers and activists to further pursue their research or goals.
If nothing else, his work on immigrant education has now been nationally recognized, not just by those in the industry but by the country as a whole.
"We've broken through certain mindsets," Salgado said. "Our work is being modeled across the country. It's influencing legislation."
Salgado, 46, was born in south suburban Calumet Park. His father was born in the United States but brought to Mexico for much of his childhood. His mother was a Mexican immigrant.
His parents showed him the importance of education, Salgado said. His father was president of Latin Americans For America, and worked to raise money for Latino kids to attend college.
"Even though my father had a sixth-grade education and was a factory worker, he was raising money for kids to go to college,” Salgado said.
Salgado earned a master's degree in urban planning from the University of Illinois. He joined Instituto in 2001 as president and chief executive officer.
Since then, Instituto has built a pristine, modern school at 2520 S. Western Ave. Called the Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy, the charter high school works to get Latino students ready for jobs in health care.
Instituto also runs the Justice Leadership Academy, a high school that works to empower creative Latino minds.
With its brand of specifically tailored education initiatives, Salgado said Instituto has been very successful in lifting up the Latino community.
"We provide the whole spectrum"
Stephen Alderson is playing David Bowie and arranging some papers while he waits for his English as a second language students to file in.
Students are late, and some leave early. That is the unique challenge to educating adult immigrants. Nearly all of his students have jobs, Alderson said.
"The people have interruptions in their lives, and we have to be attentive to these interruptions," said Alderson, Instituto's adult education director.
Alderson's teaching the third level of English as a second language. On a recent Thursday night, the class is going over gendered pronouns and verb tenses.
"We do everything from teach the alphabet to the pre-courses" for registered nurses, Alderson said.
There are five levels to the English courses, with the last level being a "bridge program" that transitions into either Instituto's health care or manufacturing technology programs.
Those two programs are specifically offered at Instituto because they are good-paying, attainable jobs that are available in the area, Salgado said.
"How do you get people to quality of life?" Salgado asked. "By finding quality employment. How do you do that? Through education."
Despite all that he has going on, Salgado is also thinking about the future, and what the $625,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation might do for his work.
Genius grants pay out over five years and go straight to the recipients, not their organizations. That gives Salgado "ultimate flexibility" to use the funds, he said.
Despite knowing about the award since early September (he was sworn to secrecy), Salgado said he's been too busy to do much thinking about where the money will go.
At the very least, Salgado said the grant will help further empower Chicago's Latino community.
"Being thoughtful and engaging and thinking about what’s really going to make a difference — I still got to go through that process," Salgado said. "One thing's for sure. This city is gonna be stronger because of it."
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