Chasing English as a Language Is the Objective

By ALEXIS TONTI

For four years now, since its inception in 1997, the state-sponsored special English language program has been growing. From three classes that first year to seven classes today - and it's still not enough. Ninety-seven adult students enrolled, and 154 filled the waiting list during September registration earlier this year. Another 86 added their names to the list several weeks ago, when a second registration was held - a mid-session adjustment to enroll students replacing those no longer in the course.

"We have a policy of three missed classes and you're out," said Jeff Agnoli, director of the Martha's Vineyard Adult Learning Partnership (MVALP), a coalition of Island organizations that receives state grants for adult education. "Usually we use that to bring people off the waiting list. And we thought we would catch those we didn't catch in September."

In fact, they caught more than they could handle. Some of those would-be students will test out of the English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and take adult basic education classes instead. But a demand remains, and it calls for a response.

Corinne Moran thought so. She's involved with the state program on a needs and assessment basis, but she also serves as coordinator of the ESL program for the Martha's Vineyard Literacy Program (MVLP). The MVLP is a nonprofit volunteer organization aimed at addressing literacy issues on the Island. When it was founded in 1987, there was no great need for ESL specifically. The emphasis instead was on teaching people to read and preparing those without high school diplomas to take their General Education Development test.

The influx of Brazilian populations to the Island changed all that, and the MVLP responded by adding an ESL component to their tutoring program. And when Ms. Moran saw the numbers in September, she knew what she had to do.

"As soon as I knew we had a real problem, I brought it up at the very next board meeting," Ms. Moran said.

The MVLP directors agreed to organize another tutor training course - the last one was in January - to prepare instructors to take on some of the state program's overflow. That workshop began Tuesday night. For three weeks, 13 volunteers will meet Tuesdays and Fridays for two-and-a-half-hour sessions to learn how to teach English as a second language. They even shortened the workshop's total hours from 18 to 15, to get tutors into the community that much faster.

The MVLP and the state's ESL programs differ slightly. The state program is larger, with 12 to 15 students per class, and runs from September through mid-May. The MVLP generally works one-on-one - though they plan to adjust for the immediate need by tutoring in small groups of three or four. Volunteers plan on at least a six-month commitment to working with students.

Listening to the tutors share what moved them to volunteer, the practical reasons for an expanded program became clear.

A hotel employee said she worked with many Brazilians this summer, and realized that although they were competent, they really needed stronger language skills both to interact effectively with guests and also for their own benefit.

Several volunteers teach in the Island school system. They all said it can be difficult when children speak limited English. The entire class is affected, as language becomes an obstacle both to academic learning and to peer interaction. Though the volunteers recognized that MVLP aims its program at adults, they said that children's limited English reflects their parents' skills. And neither parent nor child will improve when they're not speaking English at home.

Many other volunteers reflected on their own traveling experiences, saying they recognized the difficulties of functioning with limited language resources and wanted to help in any way they can.

The state ESL classes comprise primarily Brazilians, with six or seven from the Czech Republic, a proportion which will also be reflected in the MVLP program. Mr. Agnoli said that for many students, improving their English is not a question of employment versus unemployment. Rather, it's about being more efficient in the jobs they do have; about working toward job advancement.

Jean Burke, ESL coordinator for the state program, said: "We want to serve as a link, a bridge to the community. It's more than developing language skills. It's developing survival skills, letters, numbers, money, telling time."

Ms. Burke said there's also a counseling component to the classes. "Sometimes it's about just being there," she said. "Someone will bring in a letter they don't understand, or they'll need help writing a check." Ms. Burke also arranges for guest speakers to advise students about topics such as housing, health care, immigration policies and Community Services on the Island.

"We become a bit of a clearing house for information," Mr. Agnoli said.