An inside look at the English Skills Learning Center

Story and slideshow by RYAN McDONALD

Attend English class here

A chorus of “I live in Utah” rang from inside the Humanitarian Center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct.  28, 2011. The voices were those of seven people from different parts of the world who are learning English through the English Skills Learning Center (ESLC) in preparation to apply for American citizenship. The ESLC is a nonprofit organization headquartered at 631 W. North Temple in Salt Lake City.

Founded in 1988, the ESLC was originally called Literacy Volunteers of America-Wasatch Front, according to an informational brochure. In its early days, the organization provided tutoring for English speakers who struggled to read and write. English classes for both immigrants and refugees were also offered.

Since 2001, the ESLC has focused its efforts entirely in the field of English as a second language, particularly helping adults who are English language learners. The organization mainly helps those who have been identified as having a low income.

In an effort to reach as many students as possible, the organization teaches classes in different places in the community. This allows students to go to a place that is more convenient for them. Classes are held in places such as apartment complexes, elementary schools, libraries and community centers. Under certain circumstances, such as a lack of transportation or the need for a parent to stay home with their children, classes may be taught in a person’s home.

One of the hallmarks of the ESLC is the fact that most of these classes are taught by volunteers.

“The cornerstone of our organization is volunteers,” said Beth Garstka, volunteer coordinator at the ESLC.

Volunteers are recruited and trained by the ESLC staff, Garstka said. They must be 18 years of age, though there have been exceptions to this rule over the years. After 12 hours of training and two hours of observing classes, teachers must be willing to volunteer for 100 hours over six months. This breaks down to about three to five hours per week. Volunteers typically spend between two and three of those hours teaching and the rest of the time preparing for lessons and traveling.

Garstka said no prior teaching experience is necessary and teachers do not need to know another language, since all classes are taught entirely in English.

“It’s (the volunteer system) a way to bridge different worlds together,” Garstka said. “Our mission statement is ‘Bringing the promise of integration, security and empowerment to adult immigrants and refugees in Salt Lake County.’ That promise of integration is key to make sure that the people of the mainstream culture are interacting with the folks that are newly arriving here. That’s definitely a way of bringing them together.”

That being said, Garstka insists that the ESLC is not a language exchange program. Because classes are taught entirely in English for maximum learning, there is no need for class content to be translated into another language.

“I don’t want our volunteers brushing up on their Spanish,” she said.

Armed with about 200 volunteer teachers, the ESLC continues to help more and more newcomers (the term used when referring to immigrants and refugees) learn English each year. According to Garstka, the organization served 735 people in the 2009-2010 fiscal year. In the 2010-2011 year it helped 850. The 2011-2012 fiscal year began in July and the organization is currently serving about 430 people.

The ESLC teaches a variety of classes, as students are placed in certain ones depending on their needs. The Empowering Parents classes are held in elementary schools and are taught to parents of young children. Parents learn how to communicate with their children’s teachers, how to attend parent-teacher conferences and how to call a doctor’s office.

The ESLC also teaches classes to help people who are applying for their U.S. citizenship and need to take a civics and English test.

The third type of class offered is a workplace literacy class. These are taught at places of business where professional teachers and volunteers teach communication skills that are essential in employment.

“Whatever their (the students’) goal is, that is what we are going to focus on,” Garstka said.

Kathy Phan is the teacher of the civics test preparation class that was held in October. A recent graduate of the University of Utah, she began training to become a volunteer teacher in February 2011 and has been teaching since March. Having done extensive volunteer work at different places throughout her life, Phan enjoys the ESLC because of the relationships she has built with both the staff of the organization and the students she teaches.

“I feel like I have a bond with them so I’m more motivated to volunteer and stay,” she said.

As much as she enjoys teaching, it doesn’t come without challenges.

“The hardest part is trying to find the right place for students and find lessons that fit them the best and will help them improve,” Phan said.

On that October day, students in Phan’s class began by reciting a list of terms that they will need to know for the civics test, such as “senators” and “Abraham Lincoln.” The class then moved on to an activity where one student would read a sentence, such as, “The president lives in Washington, D.C.,” and another would write it on a dry erase board.

“If the activity is too easy they’re not going to benefit a huge amount and if it’s too hard it will just confuse them more,” Phan said. “It’s finding that right level. It’s been a troubleshooting kind of thing.”

Although various struggles arose during the class, such as trying to understand what the written abbreviation, “U.S.A.” meant, students recognize the great opportunity of living in the United States.

“I like it (America) for opportunity. I like it for my kids’ school,” said Inocensia Montejano, a student from Mexico.

Mohamed Muse, a Somali who has lived in Utah for a year, has learned that being able to speak English is crucial to having a successful life here. He summed up the reason that the ESLC provides the services that it does.

“(The) English language is key, key, key to life in this country,” he said.