English for Non-Native Speakers

English for Non-Native Speakers

Multiple local programs exist, but coordinators underline need for commitment.

Rose Oberlin sees it all the time. The volunteer coordinator for the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program for Floris United Methodist Church watches as day laborers and immigrant mothers, rushing from their families after preparing dinner upon finishing work, flock to her ministry’s free classes.

It happens so much, she often has to turn away students.

"It got to the point where I was afraid to promote as much because … we could have thousands of students show up," Oberlin said. "As it was, we were overwhelmed by how many people show up to these classes, it was very difficult to handle the number of students."

The Floris United Methodist Church program, which has been providing English training for nine years as part of a wider cooperative program with several Methodist churches in Northern Virginia, took in 218 students for their winter session, run with the help of about 65 volunteers, according to Oberlin.

Still, it was not enough to satisfy the desire of the non-English-speaking community, she said.

"Just to learn conversational English, there is more demand out there than we can ever meet," Oberlin said. "I would love to see them all be able to come learn the language … but right now it’s just so difficult to handle" the large number of students.

THE FAITH-BASED program is one of many English training programs for non-native speakers who strive to learn the primary language of their newly-adopted homeland. It is the same type of program that was referenced in a resolution narrowly passed by the Town of Herndon last month that promoted their existence, and commended the efforts of those who teach non-English speakers the language.

According to 2000 U.S. Census figures, nearly half of Herndon residents speak a language other than English at home.

And while opportunities do exist for local residents to learn English, the need to have to balance classes with an often full work schedule and a family life can become very difficult for students, Oberlin said. And even though it is a two-night-a-week course offering about four hours each week, it can be difficult to juggle, she added.

More challenges arise for Oberlin and the other volunteer coordinators, who are tasked with finding both classroom space and people with the proper training to teach English and the time and willingness to volunteer, she said.

"They are out there trying to learn, hundreds and thousands of them are out there trying," she said. "But to learn a language as an adult while working full-time and taking a bus or walking to work, it’s just not easy."

THE FLORIS UNITED Methodist Church program is one of many options open for local residents to learn English.

For adults, Fairfax County, as mandated by the state of Virginia, helps to finance the Fairfax County Public Schools ESOL program for adults, which serves about 300 students in the Herndon area with classes at Herndon High School and other local learning centers, according to David Red, adult ESOL program coordinator for Fairfax County Public Schools.

"A lot of these people, they come in right from work, or they get home, fix food for their families and they’re out the door, rushing here to learn," Red said. "They love their language."

While the program is "heavily" subsidized with state and county funds, it still costs students between $80 and $200 per 12-week session, plus textbook and one-time registration costs, Red said. Because of its often more intensive structure — some options allow for 15-hour-a-week courses taught Monday through Friday — the school holds between an 80 and 90 percent student retention rate and doesn’t "generally" have a waiting list for enrollment, he added.

Northern Virginia Community College’s Loudoun campus also offers ESOL classes ranging from basic to advanced levels in both its Loudoun location and a branch near Reston Town Center, according to Silvana Mehner, ESOL coordinator for the school. The program has been a major success for the area and continues to expand to meet increased demands in recent years, Mehner added. The school enrolls between 700 and 1,000 students each semester, she said.

"So far we’ve always been able to meet the demand, and we’re continuing to expand the program," Mehner said. "We’ve been fortunate enough to find classrooms in local schools and we’ve been very successful in getting teachers."

The classes, which vary in price based on their level of intensity and skill level, cost between $240 and $1,000, according to Mehner.

But for those who don’t have a large amount of time or the money to put into a course taught through the county schools system, other options led by non-profit organizations and the faith-based community exist.

A non-profit ESOL program that is run out of the Herndon Neighborhood Resource Center is taught by volunteers for small fees and book prices, but space is always limited and classes fill up quickly, according to Rita Barrett, office manager of the town-managed center.

The Herndon Official Workers Center, operated by non-profit organization Reston Interfaith, also offers walk-in "survival" English lessons for workers on some mornings, according to Bill Threlkeld, director of Project Hope & Harmony, which operates the site.

CHILDREN IN THE HERNDON area who are identified as not adequately proficient in English are all offered ESOL courses as part of the Fairfax County Public Schools program, according to Teddi Predaris, director of the office of ESOL services for Fairfax County Public Schools. Approximately 12 percent of all Fairfax County Public Schools students are enrolled in the program, she said.

And while the program initially had a "difficult" time meeting the demand from a growing population over the course of the last 10 years, ESOL courses worked into a regular school schedule are available to virtually every student, Predaris said.

"During the late ‘90s and early 2000s, we were hiring 100 new ESOL teachers a year," she said. "We were growing so rapidly, we needed to hire so many to meet the demands."

As a result, the school district set up a partnership with George Mason University and George Washington University to encourage students to learn to teach English courses to help satisfy the need of the region, Predaris said.

THE ULTIMATE SUCCESS of all the programs, particularly those that service adults, is dependent on the willingness and effort of the students enrolled, according to ESOL coordinators.

"For the kids, they can pick [English] up in no time, they’re still young and they’re still learning," Oberlin said. "But the adults, it’s not as easy. English is a very difficult language to learn and it takes a long time."

"I don’t think people recognize that very often."