Churches, Workplaces Increasingly See Value of Offering English Classes

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Mar 20 12:58:12 UTC 2006


In More Places, Immigrants Finding a Voice Through ESL: Churches,
Workplaces Increasingly See Value of Offering English Classes

The Dallas Morning News

By Stella M. Chavez, The Dallas Morning News

Mar. 19--Jo Anne Sherlock figured English classes for adults at Irving's
east branch library would be popular. But she never imagined how popular.
"We didn't have enough volunteers to step up to be tutors," recalled Ms.
Sherlock, the library's community outreach supervisor. "We had a waiting
list pages long. ... We just could not meet the demand." Ten years later,
these classes, now held five nights a week in two rooms at the central
library, are going strong -- so strong that registration for new students
wasn't offered in January because there was no room. Similar scenarios are
being played out across the country in schools and community colleges,
places that for years have offered adults the opportunity to learn
English. More recently, businesses and churches are seeing the value and
offering their own classes. Fueling the demand is the growing wave of
immigrants from Mexico to Mozambique, among other places, who want to
learn the language to get ahead in this country. They are immigrants such
as Adan Mendez Martinez, 30, from a small ranch outside Queretaro, Mexico.
He wants to start his own business and send money home to build a new
house. Ethiopian refugee Firdawsa Samoa, 45, wants to polish her English
skills for a cashier job at a local grocery store. Thinh Luu, 52, came
from Vietnam in 1991. Laid off from her job with a telecommunications
company, she's looking for work again. "I laid off, so I have time," said
Ms. Luu, who is taking classes with her husband. "I want to find a good
job, so that's why I want to learn English more." More than 8 million
adults, or 5 percent of all adults, speak English poorly or don't speak it
at all, according to a 2003 report published by the Center for Law and
Social Policy. That number is only expected to grow, say the report's
authors, as the number of immigrants continues to rise. It's no surprise,
experts say, that more English language classes have popped up in recent
years. "Now, we have a Starbucks in every corner, so how great it is that
we have adult education in a library, a church?" said Braden Goetz,
director of policy for vocational and adult education for the U.S.
Education Department. Despite the demand, some programs could close their
doors as budgets grow tighter. In Texas, for example, funding for 24 Even
Start programs has been slashed so much that those programs aren't likely
to return in the fall unless money can be found elsewhere. Even Start is a
family literacy program that teaches early childhood education as well as
adult literacy and parenting skills. A plea for funding Two letters now
circulating in Congress emphasize the need for English literacy programs
to improve the country's competitiveness and asks that federal funding be
kept at least at the same level it is now.

Amy-Ellen Duke, senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social
Policy, said such cuts should alarm people because the majority of the
2020 workforce is already out of the K-12 education system. "We really
can't afford to waste any potential workers," she said. "It's not just a
personal story. It's also our national economic story. And if we are
talking about the national well-being of our country, we have to address
this problem." According to Ms. Duke, enrollment in federally funded
English as a second language programs for adults has increased 105 percent
over the past 10 years. More than 77 percent of programs report waiting
lists, she said. Dr. Nancy Montgomery, program coordinator for ESL special
projects in Region 10, which provides training for adult literacy
educators, said teaching adults to speak English is every bit as important
as teaching their children. "What has struck me is the amount of programs
that are available now," she said. "People all over the area, they're
really doing their best, and they are trying innovative ideas and really
working hard to get them in their class."

That is no more evident than inside the walls of area churches, where
immigrants are being offered more than just a spiritual refuge. At Our
Redeemer Lutheran Church in Irving, Phillip Walker teaches ESL students
about past participles and subjunctive and infinitive phrases. "Sing,
sang, sung," he says, pressing his 23 students to select the correct verb
tense. The church program started in the summer of 2002 with 48 students.
The following year, more than 200 people had registered for classes. Now,
plans to expand the building are a result of the church's popular ESL
program, which is free and includes child care while parents attend class.
Money for the classes comes from the Lutheran Church and grants. Fifty
people are on the waiting list for classes that begin in September. ESL
students don't have to attend the church or be of the same denomination,
but Associate Pastor Robert Gonzalez doesn't deny that many end up joining
the congregation. "We're working to reach the immigrants as they come in,"
he said. "What we're doing is helping them help themselves." He points to
the computer as a reason. "Today, if you don't speak English, you're going
to have a hard time with this." ESL in the workplace More and more
workplaces, such as Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center at Grapevine
Lake, offer their employees a chance to learn English. About 60 percent of
Gaylord's 2,000 employees are from other countries. "We look at ESL as a
tool for development because some of these employees have wonderful
skills," said Gracie Vega, director of human resources. Now in its second
year, the program is paying off. Several employees who've taken the
classes have been promoted. One is now the manager of housekeeping.
Another was moved to the entrance area of the resort, where interaction
with guests is more frequent.

The free classes are held during work hours to accommodate employees'
schedules. Employees must apply for the class, be in good standing and
take an assessment test to determine their level of education. Reina
Santiago, who works in housekeeping, said the English class she recently
completed has boosted her confidence. "I used to be scared to speak it
because I didn't think I would speak it well," she said. Ms. Vega said ESL
classes are important in a company where interacting with customers is
part of the job.

"To me, being in human resources, this is a huge retention tool." E-mail
schavez at ESL enrollment More than half of all students in
the state's federally funded adult basic education programs take classes
in English as a second language. The figures below show the enrollment in
ESL and the percentage of such students in the state's adult basic
education programs. Nationally, more than 1.14 million students were
enrolled in English literacy programs funded by the Adult Education and
Family Literacy Act in fiscal year 2004. About 57 percent of those
students were between the ages 25 and 44; 21 percent were 45 or older.
SOURCES: Texas Education Agency; U.S. Education Department


Copyright (c) 2006, The Dallas Morning News
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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