Spanish 500 Students Aid Twenty Hispanic Commons Workers with Language Skills

For the past two terms, Phillips Academy students have had an opportunity to serve as teachers of English as a Second Language (ESL) for members of the Commons staff seeking to improve their English skills. A Community Service (CommServ) Office initiative that began last spring, the ESL program has already made great strides in facilitating English learning for the primarily Latino immigrant population of Commons workers. Twenty Commons staff members and fourteen PA students are currently involved in the ESL program, which revolves around Thursday afternoon meetings in which certain AP Spanish students instruct the workers in an informal, one-on-one setting in Lower Right. According to Director of Commons Business Services Susan Stott, many of the staffers have given up their own break time for such tutoring sessions – a fact that indicates their interest in the opportunity to learn. Yesterday was the third time this year that the worker-student pairings met for their language study. Mrs. Stott commented, “[The Commons workers] jumped at this chance. … It’s something to help them and to help us. Everyone is really thrilled with how the program is going.” Interim CommServ Director Mike Koehler ’94 added, “Everyone seems to be having a great time. Hopefully we’ll keep up the energy.” The Commons ESL program was launched last year as a result of a discussion between Pablo Durana ’02 and Instructor in Spanish Albert Cauz. At that time, Durana was already the CommServ Coordinator for Project Voice, an adult citizenship-education course for immigrants in Lawrence. “The idea just took off in Pablo’s mind and he made it happen,” noted Mr. Koehler. The CommServ Office, having already recognized a need to bring attention to valuable service opportunities on Academy Hill, quickly encouraged the initiative as an alternative to other outreach activities, the majority of which are located off campus. After its inauguration last spring, however, the program temporarily fell by the wayside last fall because no class was able to fit it into its schedule. In order to ensure that the idea would live on in the winter, the Spanish Department and CommServ Office invited students to restructure their schedules so that they could participate. Although some workers possess above-average English skills, many others have only limited capabilities. “It’s hard pedagogically,” Koehler explained, noting the near-impossibility of teaching an entire language in thirty minutes a week. “None of us have ever taught ESL before, so we’re all in this together.” When establishing the ESL program last year, Durana compiled a book of lessons and worksheets to be utilized during the tutoring classes. After Durana graduated in June, Thuy Le ’03 and Rachel Shack ’04 stepped up as coordinators and looked to expand on Durana’s original objectives. As coordinators, Le and Shack research lesson plans and assist tutors in coming up with creative teaching methods tailored to the needs of individual participants. “We just encourage the kids to think back to their first days in a foreign language class as they try to devise creative lessons,” observed Koehler. Because many of the Commons workers immigrated in recent years from their Spanish-speaking home countries to nearby Latino areas such as Lawrence, acquiring English skills represents a major goal. In 2000, the Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth (MassINC), an independent organization, estimated that there were approximately 195,000 working-age immigrants in Massachusetts with limited English abilities. Northern Essex Community College Director of Adult-Based Education and Transitional Services Irene Chalek stated in a recent Lawrence Eagle-Tribune interview that the need for ESL classes appears obvious in Lawrence, where such courses are full and have lengthy waiting lists. Mrs. Stott emphasized the corporate importance of such a program, saying, “We felt that [the Commons workers] needed to improve [their English skills] as far as working on the line.” Mr. Koehler agreed, saying, “When you come to a new country and don’t know the language, it’s hard to find a job that’s consistent with your ability in your native language … There are some people in the class for whom the difference between their job now and a promotion is their English ability.” He also noted the ESL program’s benefits for students, who share their own knowledge while gaining insight into the culture and language of the Commons workers as well, stating, “They learn how to teach and how to relate to different folks, including their elders. Hopefully some kids will realize that not all immigrants want to be a weight on the system. It’s not that easy to paint a population with one broad stroke.” The program’s purpose similarly lacks a one-stroke classification. Although the language and cultural learning aspects of the ESL program are important, equally valuable are the positive relationships and mutual respect cultivated between students and Commons staff as a result of the program. Mr. Koehler elaborated, “I think everyone appreciates getting to know people whom you’re working with. Students wouldn’t live without Commons staff, and Commons staff wouldn’t have a job if not for the school. The language piece is important, but for the Commons staff it’s mostly about getting to know the kids and for the kids it’s about getting to know the people who work in the dining hall.”