Immigrants learn English, job skills

Maryland community colleges have added English as a Second Language and GED programs to serve a growing number of immigrant students.

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At Prince George’s Community College’s (PGCC) International Education Center, health care careers is the most popular program for immigrant students. But many need to improve their English. “PGCC and four other community colleges in Maryland created an accelerated program—modeled on Washington state’s I-Best program—that provides language and skills training,” reports Community College Times.

In addition to Latinos, PGCC draws students from Africa and other countries.

About 25 percent of the nation’s 6.5 million degree-seeking community college students were foreign born in 2004-05, according to a U.S. Education Department report​.

Persevering — and passing

Eliana Osborn has a hard-working, competent, front-row student who’s taking the English class for the fifth time, she writes on The Two-Year Track.

 She’s learned from her many failures and seems to be doing things right on Attempt 5. I respect that. I’m not cutting her any breaks, but she doesn’t need them. She’s learned about herself and how to be a good student. I asked her why she keeps coming and trying after so many disappointing semesters.

“I have to do this,” she told me with steely eyes. “I don’t have a choice. I have to get an education for my family.”

Teaching on the U.S.-Mexico border, she has many low-income students who speak English as a second language. “As I read their papers and learn about their lives, I am impressed again and again by their perseverance,” Osborn writes.

The workforce development fantasy

President Obama focused on the workforce development mission of community colleges in his State of the Union Speech, calling on community colleges to train two million skilled workers for unfilled jobs.

The next day, Education Secretary Arne Duncan flew to Florida to praise job training programs at Tallahassee Community College.

Workforce development is the flavor of the month, writes Community College Dean. But it’s not as easy as politicians think to turn out skilled workers.

The most predictable lower-level workforce needs are actually the skills we expect students to pick up in their general education courses: effective communication, the ability to see the big picture, enough quantitative skill to know when an answer doesn’t sound right.  Those skills are evergreens, and like evergreens, they take time to grow.

There are always a few local employers who need workers who can be trained quickly, the dean writes. But those jobs get filled by the first or second cohort of trainees.

Many would-be workers need literacy or English as a Second Language classes. Community colleges’ developmental track is geared towards getting students into a degree program.  Adult Basic Education is a better fit, but often is underfunded and can’t meet the demand.

The dean’s advice:

If you want to improve the prospects of the local workforce, start with adult basic education, add short-term training programs, and beef up the classic academic offerings at community colleges for transfer. . . . Otherwise, you’ll just keep cycling people through training programs every few years, every time the economic winds shift.

The second word in “community college” is “college,” the dean points out. Community colleges are in danger of being defined purely as job training centers.

How to help immigrant students

Community colleges must find ways to serve an increasingly diverse immigrant population with limited funds, urges Increasing Opportunities for Immigrant Students (pdf), a report by the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education. By 2030, nearly one in five workers will be an immigrant, according to CCCIE.

Some colleges have helped students move quickly to college-level classes by integrating English as a Second Language with academic classwork, but designing “contextualized” ESL classes is challenging the report warns.

Other critical issues include: expanding ESL classroom capacity to meet demand, which, in turn, increases the need for more well-qualified ESL instructors; scheduling classes that can accommodate students’ work schedules and family responsibilities; and providing differentiated ESL curricula and career pathways to accommodate the various English proficiency and educational levels of immigrant students. More comprehensive assessment procedures that reflect immigrant students’ unique needs and strengths are a key prerequisite to developing more targeted curricula and student support.

Community colleges profiled in the report have found ways to expand services to immigrant students through public-private partnerships and collaborations with community groups, CCCIE stresses.

The report urges policymakers to improve access to financial aid by allowing support for noncredit ESL classes, reports College Bound.

ESL prof invents ‘chatbot’ to teach English

Mike and Michelle, on-screen robot tutors for English learners will travel to England’s Exeter University next month as one of four finalists for the 2011 Loebner Prize for Artificial Intelligence. Ron Chang Lee, an adjunct English as a Second Language teacher at Pasadena City College, created the robots to give students a chance to practice their English.

Just 15 minutes a day with Mike or Michelle can really help, he said.”It’s just like having a native speaker — they correct mistakes, spelling and grammatical errors. You type in `You is a good teacher,’ and the robot corrects you. `Say you are, never say you is.”‘

Lee taught English in China before earning a master’s in ESL and a PhD in educational technology at the University of Illinois. He started an ESL site  as a class project in 1994  and kept adding topics and conversations.

The robots can detect the 800 most common errors learning English-speakers make, Lee said, and know all the irregular verbs, provide different tenses, explain grammatical terms and give advice on how to learn English.

Most Loebner finalists are computer programmers or developers, not teachers, says Miranda Yousef, who plans a documentary on the prize.

Lee hopes to improve his chatbots, but needs more funding.

Users still have to type in their questions, rather than speak, although he said users with speech recognition software can talk into the microphone.

“But again, speech recognition is not perfect,” he said. “It sometimes makes mistakes, especially when the user has a foreign accent.”

The computer-synthesized voices Mike and Michelle use are “getting closer” to actual human voices, Lee said, but they still sound artificial. And, except for welcoming users to the site, he has turned the voices off to save money, he said.

Lee’s site has become the top ESL destination on the web; combined with his,

Talk (via type) to Michelle here.

Aid rules boost attrition rate

Provide student aid for basic English classes to help immigrant students and cut attrition rates, Community College Dean writes.

Adult Basic Education students aren’t eligible for financial aid and often end up on long wait lists trying to get into basic ESL classes. Students who declare they’re seeking a degree can get aid to take remedial and credit-bearing English as a Second Language classes without a wait. That encourages immigrants to declare they’re seeking a degree, take a few classes to learn the skills they need and then leave.  They’re counted as drop-outs.

When I’ve asked the ESL department about their attrition numbers, they’ve responded that many of the students never really meant to get a degree in the first place.

Um, okay, but there’s this pesky issue of financial aid fraud, not to mention legislators looking askance at what appear to be distressingly high attrition rates…

If the ABE programs were eligible for financial aid, we wouldn’t have this problem. Students who just wanted to learn enough English to talk to their children’s teachers and get along at work could take the ABE courses honestly, and the credit-bearing ESL courses would be reserved for students who are actually trying to get degrees.

Funding  easy-access English classes for immigrants would pay off in increased productivity, the dean argues. Why make people wait to learn the skills that will enable them to integrate into society?

ESL students act out their struggles

The play’s the thing for immigrant students at Oregon’s Rogue Community College. English as a Second Language students act out experiences with prejudice as part of an interactive theater project that lets students hone their English skills while reaching out to the community, reports the Mail Tribune.

In the middle of the action, the actors stopped to allow the audience to ask questions about their characters’ motivations and perceptions.

Evalyn Hansen, a Rogue ESL teacher, used theater when she was teaching remedial English students at Oregon Coast Community College, reports the Mail Tribune. Hansen decided “the technique could be used with ESL students, who also could reach out to the greater community to promote understanding between different cultures in the Rogue Valley.”

“Acting and repetition are the key to learning how to express yourself in another language,” Hansen said. “Theater is valuable because it brings out emotions where you might not have expected it. The audience becomes involved in the characters. They learn to solve problems in a new way. When you speak from the heart, that breaks a lot of language barriers.”

Via Community College Week.

Iraqi refugees seek English classes

Iraq refugees are eager to learn English at Cuyamaca College near San Diego, but classes are full, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only).

Because of its established community of Chaldean Christians from Iraq, East San Diego County draws one in four Iraqi refugees in the U.S., reports the Union-Tribune. English classes are swamped.

“It’s terrible to have to turn them away,” said Alicia Muñoz, the coordinator of the English as a Second Language program at Cuyamaca College in Rancho San Diego. “They are hungry to learn. It’s really heartbreaking.”

Cuyamaca College tripled the number of basic English classes by canceling more advanced classes.

Guillermo Colls, an ESL instructor, said 27 of 29 students registered for his reading class are from Iraq. An additional 40 students are on a waiting list.

Colls read a textbook passage to the class, stopping to discuss vocabulary words that included “functional,” “adjustable” and “ergonomic.” He told the students an “efficient” worker was careful and didn’t make errors.

“I give you the easiest meaning possible and you get the overall idea,” Colls said.

Grossmont College in El Cajon can’t add English-language classes because of state budget cuts, said department chairman Chuck Passentino. “They really need the help, and we can’t provide it,” Passentino said. “That’s what’s killing me.”

Cuyamaca’s valedictorian is an Iraqi refugee, reports East County Magazine. Bushra Rezoqi, who fled her native Iraq in 2001, and lived in Colombia and Ecuador before coming to the U.S., spoke at commencement ceremonies.

At the podium, Rezoqi said, “How is it possible I stand here today, speaking to you in my fourth language?”

The mother of three children began her Cuyamaca College journey by enrolling in English as a Second Language classes in 2006. She continued to take courses and received her associate’s degree in accounting, all while raising her three young children, running a household and working in her brothers’ market. Rezoqi even excelled in advanced composition as her English improved. She told graduates, “Do what’s in your heart, and you will succeed.”

A straight-A student, Rezoqi will go to San Diego State to earn an accounting bachelor’s degree.