In a small conference room in the back of Woodbury’s R.H. Stafford Library is a group of 25 eager students ready to learn. Through the approximately two-year long English as a Second Language (ESL) program with Great Rivers Adult Community Education Consortium of South Washington County Schools, these students are able to become part of the community—linguistically and beyond.
“The hardest part is listening, in the beginning of last year I could not understand anything, my teacher or my classmates and they could not understand me,” ESL student Gui Chun says. “But now I can.”
The adult basic education programs are federally funded, and the ESL classes are free to all students 17 years or older who meet eligibility requirements. Attendance is mandatory to maintain that status and to increase chances of steady academic growth.
Though the programs vary, typically the class is offered four days a week for two-and-a-half hours each session (or twice a week for three hours each in the evening), and students are required to take a standardized reading assessment after 40–60 hours of attendance to test their progress.
“When something doesn’t have a [financial] value you don’t appreciate it, but this is an exception to the rule,” ESL student Paola Trujillo says. “You appreciate it so much more because you are always learning.”
Focused on reading, writing, listening, speaking, pronunciation, numeracy and digital literacy, instructor Heather Ferguson also goes beyond the textbook to address cultural shifts in the students’ new American lifestyles.
With students native to countries from across the globe—Colombia, China, Brazil, Korea, India, Panama and Japan to name a few—Ferguson says the diversity brings more perspective to the course.
“I love learning from them,” Ferguson says. “I love when we all establish that we are so much more alike than different, with everything.”
Ferguson helps her students feel established in the community through volunteering with SoWashCoCares, a community-led effort to meet the needs of students in the South Washington County School District, by taking them on field trips, assisting with driver’s license and citizenships, and helping them navigate the school system.
In addition, Ferguson also brings community volunteers in—the mayor, the superintendent, realtors, police officers and firefighters—to practice conversations with new faces.
As for the future of the ESL classes, Ferguson hopes to eventually have a larger designated space for class to help as many people as possible. She also wants to have a space to cultivate a community garden for her students to tend and pick from in the warmer seasons.
“It’s the little things,” she says. “We’ve created a family.”
The Great Rivers Community Education programs include the following programs:
- Morning ESL classes in Woodbury
- Evening ESL classes in Cottage Grove and Hastings
- Classes at the Dakota County Correctional Facility
- GED prep
- Adult diploma classes