A dream realized for El Centro Hispano is a boon for SWBOCES’ community offerings

Posh new space elevates students and learning for Adult Literacy Program

    Administrators and director pose in lobby of El Centro Hispano As Judy Aucar provides a tour of El Centro Hispano’s sleek new home on Central Avenue in White Plains, she gushes with praise — for the vision and charisma of founder Isabel Villar, for her dedicated staff, and for the longstanding partnership with Southern Westchester BOCES.

“This was designed especially for BOCES,” she said, gesturing to three glass-walled classrooms in this former Harley-Davidson dealership, where SWBOCES ESL, Citizenship Exam Preparation and High School Equivalency Exam Preparation programs are taught. The previous location at St. Bernard Church on Prospect Street had only a single classroom.

Photo of Isabela Villar on boardroom table at El Centro Hispano

El Centro Hispano unveiled its first new location in its 49-year history on June 26. A few weeks later, Ms. Villar passed away, having fulfilled the organization’s decades-long ambition of a permanent home. On a recent afternoon, the late-summer sun shined through the plate-glass facade into gleaming offices and an elegant corporate boardroom. 

On the second level, classrooms befitting a private college awaited the arrival of evening classes. A few aspects of the decor stand out: indoor plants that give life to even quiet hallways, and a menagerie of photographs, proclamations and news clippings that tell the storied history of this bastion of support for the immigrants of this community. 

entrance of new El Centro Hispano home at 295 Central Avenue in White Plains

The combined effect, in the view of Tracy Racicot, SWBOCES Director of Adult & Community Services, is one of respect for the students who come here and for the learning that takes place here. 

Ms. Racicot said that SWBOCES Adult Literacy Program classes take place in the building days, evenings, and weekends. The partnership with El Centro Hispano goes back decades and is a model for the kind of collaboration SWBOCES seeks in all the communities it serves.

director and two educators talk in hallway“We are very proud to partner with them and to celebrate the hard work of our staff and students who come together to learn and grow,” said Ms. Racicot, who was joined on the recent visit by Adult Literacy Program Supervisor Maria Guerrero.

As Ms. Aucar tells it, fundraising for this space began with El Centro Hispano’s founding in 1974. The idea, as she put it, was to find a home “so we could have El Centro Hispano for life.”

The challenges of the pandemic accelerated the need to relocate, and more than 35 different buildings were looked at before settling on this motorcycle dealership that had since been purchased by the nearby College of Westchester. The building itself cost $2 million; needed renovations, for which funds were subsequently raised, cost an additional $2.4 million and took eight months to complete.

Before designing the building, Ms. Guerrero was consulted about SWBOCES’ specific needs for its students and programs, “because we’ve had a wonderful relationship with SWBOCES for many, many years,” Ms. Aucar said.

“Thanks to SWBOCES we are able to give this community what they need — English classes, GED programs and Citizenship Exam preparation, and the kindness and empathy of the teachers,” she added. “They are here to help the students.”