In a classroom at this North Philadelphia college campus, 34-year-old Shirley Carrasquillo listens to her biology instructor, who speaks English: "First thing we'll go over is the skeleton. Then we'll take a break and go over the muscular system."

Down the hall, Gloriluz Santana, 17, is in a computer class, but her instruction is in Spanish. And that's good for Santana, a recent arrival from the Dominican Republic who knows little English.

Both are in a two-year associate-degree program at Esperanza College of Eastern University that helps students learn English while they take other courses.

Most classes are in Spanish the first semester; by the third, almost all are in English, and students must complete a 12-page research paper in English to earn a degree.

While such bilingual approaches occur regularly in lower education, they are much more rare at the college level, officials say.

In the Philadelphia area, La Salle University also offers a bilingual program, which it has revamped to help speed up the transition to English.

The programs are credited with helping Latino students earn college degrees.

Jack Weaver, Esperanza College dean, said 57 percent of students completed their two-year degree, better than the national average of 39 percent for Latino students. More than half continue on for a bachelor's.

"We believe our model is pretty unique nationally," Weaver said. Esperanza is a branch campus of Eastern, a Christian school in St. Davids.

Some bilingual programs exist at community colleges in border states such as Texas and California and in places with large Latino populations, such as Chicago and New York. In other areas, programs are lacking because of the assumption that students will get language skills in elementary and middle schools or take English classes.

More programs are needed, advocates say.

"There are so many people who are immigrating to this country from Spanish-speaking countries," said Antonio R. Flores, who heads the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities in San Antonio. "They have at least a high school education, with language being the main barrier for most of them . . . for entrance into college."

The La Salle and Esperanza programs largely target adults. La Salle's focuses solely on those with limited English and runs at night. Esperanza is also open to students who don't speak Spanish. It aims to make its graduates bilingual and offers day and evening courses.

When Carrasquillo arrived from Puerto Rico, she spoke little English and struggled when she enrolled at Esperanza a year ago. Attending a regular college would have been impossible, she said.

"This really helped me improve my reading skills, and it also helped me in a lot of ways to believe in myself," she said. "I'm glad that this program exists, because it gives the Spanish community an opportunity to develop their skills to be a professional, not be left behind."

Carrasquillo, a teacher's aide at Willard Elementary School in Philadelphia, said she planned to seek a bachelor's degree and become a teacher.

Students are divided into three tracks: native Spanish-speaking students with limited English, bilingual students with strong English skills, and students who know no or little Spanish.

Students must demonstrate limited English for admittance and maintain at least a C in English to remain enrolled.

Students can earn an associate degree in liberal studies with concentrations in business administration, communications or early-childhood education.

The brainchild of the Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., founder and president of Nueva Esperanza, and Eastern president David Black, the Esperanza program started in 2000 with only a handful of students. It is in partnership with Nueva Esperanza, a nonprofit, faith-based group that helps with economic development, housing and education in the Hispanic community.

Since opening, the Esperanza program has grown to 130 students, with plans to expand to 250 by 2010.

Last week, Esperanza opened its remodeled 16,000-square-foot facilities in a former envelope factory, which will allow for greater expansion. It used a $2 million-plus federal grant for the 11-classroom renovation, library and curriculum upgrade.

Tuition at Eastern is about $10,000 a semester, but students in Esperanza receive a 50 percent discount. If they qualify for financial aid, they can attend for as little as $680 a semester, Weaver said.

La Salle also offers discounts to students in its program, called BUSCA (Bilingual Undergraduate Studies for Collegiate Advancement), and with maximum financial aid students also can study for very little or free, said Sister Suzanne Neisser, program director.

La Salle's program, which enrolls more than 100, started 14 years ago as the college saw a need to serve Hispanics. Students can work toward degrees in nursing, criminal justice, accounting, computer technology and other areas.

The five-semester program starts with a 12-credit intensive course in English, then moves to content courses in both English and Spanish, and finally transitions to all courses in English by the third semester.

While only 22 percent of students have earned an associate degree and only about 8 percent have gone on to earn a bachelor's, Neisser said she expected the numbers to improve with the revised curriculum.

The school also is training staff to deal better with students who speak limited English and is using academic and motivational counselors.

Things are already looking better, Neisser said. In December, the school graduated 14 students - the first under the new curriculum - and all are going on for bachelor's degrees, she said.

Among them is Altidoro Justo Gallardo Moreno, 52, who fled his native Peru in 1998 after being assaulted in multiple robberies and losing his supermarket.

Entering the program with very little English, he completed his associate and bachelor's degrees in liberal arts while driving a taxi 14 hours every day and funding his children's college education in Peru.

"I study in my car all the time," he said, boasting of his 3.58 grade point average.

He has been accepted to Temple University for a master's program in Spanish American literature. And he's looking for a new job at a Spanish organization or in education.

Without the BUSCA program, he wouldn't have a degree, he said: "It's hard to make the transition, but you can get it."

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder

at 215-854-4693 or ssnyder@phillynews.com.