It was bad enough when District school officials took away the Carlos Rosario Adult Education Center, Sonia Gutiérrez’s baby, in May 1996. It didn’t help matters when they tried to soothe her feelings with a cushy administrative job a month later. But their failure to live up to the promise that they would serve Rosario’s displaced students pushed her over the edge.

“The school system said, ‘You don’t need to worry,’” recalls Gutiérrez, her eyes rolling at the thought. “Now they have five classes going on at Roosevelt in the morning. But consider, five classes when I used to have 1,300 students in the day program….Most of the students are out there with nothing.”

Gutiérrez abruptly retired last June from the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), but not before vowing to rebuild the Rosario Center from scratch and make it bigger than before—which sounded like trash talk spouted in the heat of retirement. But Gutiérrez knows a little more about follow-through than the bureaucracy she left behind, and last month, the new, nonprofit Carlos Rosario International Adult & Career Center opened in the cramped basement of Calvary Baptist Church on 8th Street NW. Perhaps most importantly, Gutiérrez and the center are no longer at the mercy of a bumbling school system. The DCPS funding may be gone, but there will be no more empty promises or vintage bureaucratic excuses.

“That I will not miss,” she says, recounting DCPS’s knack for boneheaded moves in her rapid Puerto Rican canto. “Having to wait weeks and weeks and weeks to get a staff person or a teacher on board. Many times Montgomery County and Arlington would steal the best teachers because…they [hire] them overnight. Or having a class with 30 students ready to go and no teacher….You used to have people who had been [in central administration] forever and really didn’t care.”

She can also savor regaining a clientele that had few alternatives when DCPS shuttered her internationally renowned program.

“You have a few classes here or a few classes there, but that is not a program,” says Gutiérrez. “That doesn’t meet the need of thousands of students who were at my school.”

The center’s ragtag facility at Calvary hardly compares to the bustling Georgetown school building where Gutiérrez, her 50 teachers, and her $2.3-million budget catered to more than 4,000 students annually. Instead of three floors, the new Rosario rents one office and four rooms to teach its 80 students. Instead of millions to spend, it has $100,000 in foundation grants. Instead of hundreds of classes, it offers four 12-week slots of English as a Second Language (ESL). Gone is DCPS-issue furniture, replaced by donated desks, chairs, computers, and telephones.

“I think there is nothing here that is not donated,” Gutiérrez says, scanning her office, which for the time being has more desks than workers.

Despite the meager surroundings, Gutiérrez already has big plans for the near term—adding morning classes to the ESL schedule, establishing a bilingual nurse’s aide program, and starting diploma-equivalency and citizenship courses. It’s hard to find anyone around her, meanwhile, who questions her ambition to rebuild her previous success using not much more than stubbornness. After all, she has already followed through on her promise to bring back the school in the first place, points out advanced ESL student Mohamed Abouelenein, who immigrated from Egypt in late 1995.

“We’re here, right?” says Abouelenein. “She did it.”

Abouelenein spent six months learning English at the old Rosario and quickly landed a technician’s job with Bell Atlantic. It’s just the kind of improbable story that has Gutiérrez coming back to make Rosario bigger and better—when she could just as easily have retired. And there is the matter of pride. Gutiérrez fought bitterly and unsuccessfully to keep Rosario open last year, and the bitter taste remains.

“If I had retired, and somebody else, like one of my assistants, had taken over the center and kept it running, it would have been totally different,” she says. “That’s what I thought would happen eventually. But they destroyed my school. They destroyed it. So if I retire, and I have the knowledge and I know how to do it, then I decided I was going to do it. And I didn’t think about it twice. There’s some people that might think I’m crazy, but I will do it all over again.”

Gutiérrez has just finished saying that things at the new Rosario are going too slowly for her tastes when she interrupts herself to tag her assistant with a reminder.

“Oh, Rony, by the way, I need to talk to Emeterio to see if we can start a GED class in the daytime,” she says, jingling a gold bracelet that accessorizes a navy blue jacket and skirt and a perfectly positioned brooch.

While the outfit might easily melt into any downtown power lunch, it seems like overkill in the spartan basement headquarters. Gutiérrez’s demeanor only accents the contrast—a glare of confidence shining on a mundane reality. But she says the mighty Rosario program also had modest roots back when it was known as PEILA—Program for English Instruction of Latin Americans.

“We were in the Latino community,” says Gutiérrez, describing similarly crowded quarters on Irving Street in Columbia Heights in the early 1970s. “There we had one, two, three, four rooms that we used in that third floor.”

The program was the brainchild of Latino community leaders, including its eventual namesake, Carlos Rosario, who won a federal grant to establish an ESL program. By the time Gutiérrez arrived at the fledgling program in 1972, it had 150 students.

“When I got there, there was already an office and some money—not a lot—but some,” she says.

As the Latino community in Washington grew in the mid-’70s, so did PEILA, and its leaders convinced DCPS in 1974 to bring the program in-house, and in 1978 to move it to the former Gordon Junior High School. Gutiérrez believes joining the school system—and fusing PEILA with an existing citizenship program—was a major factor in the center’s explosive growth in the 1980s.

“It probably would have survived, but I don’t know that it would have gotten as big as it was,” Gutiérrez says.

The center—which was named for Rosario in 1987 after his death—blossomed beyond its Latino roots into a national model of adult immigrant education, offering a smorgasbord of programs, including ESL, literacy, GED, citizenship, computer training, culinary arts, job placement, social service referral, and Head Start for children of Rosario students. Its makeup reflected the waves of immigrants and refugees that Washington absorbed, including a crush in 1978 from southeast Asia following the Vietnam War.

“My God, we had overnight, like, 400 Vietnamese,” Gutiérrez recalls. “Then we had the Iranian problem and we had a lot of Iranian refugees coming in. Then the Salvadorans came, and it was, like, major invasion with the Salvadorans. And they always remained the largest group in the school. It kept growing throughout the years. We expanded as much as we could.”

Gutiérrez estimates that more than 60,000 students passed through the doors at PEILA and Rosario.

“I always say Rosario was doing the city a big favor,” she says. “We were giving the people not only the language skills and job skills they needed to be mainstreamed, but we were teaching people how to become good citizens.”

But worthy or not, the Rosario program was always an extra—a nonmandated program that became a ripe target when budget shortfalls began to squeeze DCPS in the early ’90s. The D.C. Board of Education lopped off part of Rosario’s budget in 1995, but Gutiérrez’s proposal to lead the school into self-sufficiency within five years—and off the city dollar—was not enough to save the program in 1996. The school board voted to gut its nonmandated adult education offerings, closing Rosario and several other schools and preserving only a handful of classes, which it scattered among sites across the city.

“If they had given me five years, we would have made that school self-sufficient,” says Gutiérrez disgustedly. “We were developing an economic development plan with people from the chamber of commerce to bring businesses into the building that would help support the program.”

Gutiérrez contends that more than just money forced Rosario’s closing, however. The closing of the mostly black Armstrong Adult Education Center, which was announced at the same time, made it a tit-for-tat target.

“It was explained to me that politically they couldn’t do it—board members told me this, and the superintendent—because it would be seen like they were closing one adult education African-American school and allowing the immigrants to stay with their building,” says Gutiérrez, who well remembers who ended up on what side of the 6-4 vote to close Rosario. And she says a subsequent effort to open the program as a charter school ran into the same anti-immigrant currents—this time fueled by board of education members Wilma Harvey and Valencia Mohammed, both of whom Gutiérrez says urged the board to deny the proposal because it had rejected an earlier charter tailored for black adults.

Harvey, the Ward 1 representative, says the board’s 1996 vote to close Rosario was made in the belief that adult education should not be funded at the expense of elementary and secondary programs—a rationale Harvey rejected when voting against the measure. But Harvey bristles at Gutiérrez’s claim that anti-immigrant sentiment scuttled the charter proposal, blaming instead a technicality in the rules governing charters that left no money for adult programs.

“If Sonia Gutiérrez said that, it’s simply not true,” says Harvey. “That’s a lie.”

Gutiérrez says she learned a few lessons herself when Rosario ended up in the cross hairs of budget cutters.

“I learned that you don’t take anything for granted,” she says. “I learned that you don’t trust politicians….Even though I had worked in the political arena for many years, I still trusted some people. And to put it mildly, right now it’s very, very few people that I can say I trust. You know, many people say that politicians will help you and blah blah blah—and that’s never going to happen. That’s a lot of BS, you know? When the time came, nobody helped. We were on our own.”

Gutiérrez could have landed well inside the bureaucracy—she received an offer from DCPS to move into the administrative ranks and oversee adult education for four of the city’s eight wards. But instead Gutiérrez listened to old colleagues like Pedro “Pepe” Lujan, one of PEILA’s founders, who urged her to start over.

“PEILA was a community organization founded by the people—by the community—not by the board of education,” says Lujan, a dean of Latino Washington’s business circles who chairs the new Rosario board. “We got the money, we bought the blackboards, we bought everything. And that’s why it’s never going to disappear. Each time they close us we will come back again.”

Gutiérrez is getting used to the role of fund-raiser, but she’s not much for the hat-in-hand approach. On a recent Wednesday morning at Rosario, Gutiérrez holds forth with Lujan and two representatives from a potential funder. In nervy, almost aggressive fashion, Gutiérrez weaves between preaching why the Rosario center is needed and telling anecdotes that suggest the Rosario she built can’t be erased by bureaucrats.

“I started working out of the recreation room in my house, the basement of my house, with Rony,” she says, referring to former Rosario student Rony Mora. “I started in August and Rony joined me in September. We got volunteers [and] we took over the recreation room entero and then we even used to use the first floor—[my husband] couldn’t wait for us to leave.”

But while they were planning Rosario’s return, the sense of loss in the immigrant community lingered.

“During these past 10 months, they have been calling me,” says Eddy Sandjaja, a six-year Rosario veteran who now runs the center’s evening program. “I’ve been seeing them on the streets. They’re asking, ‘When are you coming back?’”

Some students of the old center, like Carlos Muñoz, claim they looked far and wide for comparable programs but came up empty-handed.

“I looked everywhere,” says Muñoz, who studies advanced ESL. “I looked in Maryland, I looked in Virginia. There’s no school like Carlos Rosario.”

The new center enjoys that kind of loyalty from former Rosario students, who make up 95 percent of its enrollment. It should have little trouble attracting them, thanks to a more-than-competitive $50 course fee for basic ESL. But Gutiérrez says the center enjoys two other advantages.

“First, I have all the experience, so I know how to do it,” she says. “And second…it has not been that hard to get money from foundations or to get things like books, because we already were established for 24 years and people know us.” Her connections have so far rung up a pair of $50,000 grants from the Cafritz Foundation and the Meyer Foundation.

Despite the smaller scope, Gutiérrez says she is using her old curriculum and hiring former DCPS teachers from Rosario. The enrollment mix remains diverse, with the 80 students hailing from 22 countries on five continents.

For now, it appears Gutiérrez will enjoy her freedom, which allows her to shape Rosario to her vision—including planning nurse’s aide and home health care programs. A near-fatal accident that put her 29-year-old son in a coma last June—three days before Rosario was set to close—gave birth to both ideas. Her son’s monthlong hospital stay and long rehabilitation got her thinking about the need for bilingual nursing staff.

“His roommate there was a Mexican who had fallen from a third story building, and do you know they had not done anything to him because they couldn’t understand what he was saying?” Gutiérrez marvels. “So I spent that whole week not only taking care of my son but translating for this poor Mexican boy. He had been in the country only, like, two weeks and he got this job in construction—didn’t speak a word of English.”

The experience, she says, only hardened her resolve to bring Rosario back to serve immigrant Washington.

“I take my hat off to them,” she says. “I come from a middle-class family in Puerto Rico. I don’t know if I could do like these immigrants that work two and three jobs and still make time to go to school and raise a family and help their families in their countries. How many people can do that?”