Volume 7, Issue B ::: November 2004
Our Own "Crossroads Café"
Small companies can rarely make workplace education feasible. Collaboration across businesses made this pilot work.
by Andy Tyskiewicz, Aileen Halloran, & Alpha Nicholson
Workplace education is often unconventional in its location, and its content is tailored to the individual workplace. Classes might be in a warehouse, a company conference room, or in a secure area of a defense industry factory. In this example, classes were held in the small back room of a tiny café in New Britain, Connecticut. The students were employed in several different businesses in the community. What they shared was a common first language (Polish) and a strong desire to improve their English. This English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) class was unique in that it brought together students from several firms, which individually did not have enough students or resources to justify having their own classes, and gave them the opportunity to learn some English at a time and place convenient for them all.
Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) is a Regional Education Service Center serving 35 school districts in the Hartford, Connecticut, area. Within CREC, the Division of Community Education, Training and Employment Services provides adult basic education (ABE) and ESOL classes to adults in the capital area. We funded this class with monies received through Connecticut's new Workforce Initiative, which provided minigrants from federal Incentive Funds received by the Connecticut State Department of Education for meeting National Reporting System (NRS) goals (NRS is an outcome-based reporting system for the state administered, federally-funded adult education program). We applied for the minigrant with the intent of piloting a collaborative concept for small businesses that need ESOL instruction in the workplace.
New Britain is a midsized city of about 75,000 people located in central Connecticut. According to the 2000 Census, about 20 percent of the total population is of Polish ancestry, making it by far the largest ethnic group in the city. With a long history of welcoming Polish immigrants, New Britain has had many restaurants, stores, churches, and agencies either catering to or owned by Polish families. The continuing growth of its Polish community gives the city an authentically ethnic, European atmosphere. On some of New Britain's streets Polish is more commonly heard than English, so locating a class in one of these neighborhoods made sense.
The grant money provided a unique opportunity for employers. When we applied for the grant, three small businesses in the neighborhood had committed to sending students, but as the word spread a few more students joined from other businesses in the community; we admitted others on a space-available basis. Class was scheduled for 90 minutes twice a week, for a total of 27 hours of instruction. Class days and time were chosen to accommodate students' work schedules and the café owner who volunteered to host the class in the café's back room. He filled in for the waitress while she was in class and often listened in to lessons between serving customers. While not an ideal classroom, it made up for its drawbacks with charm, accessibility, and the opportunity it gave students to practice some "real life" skills, such as ordering in a restaurant and following directions in the neighborhood.
Eight students, their desks, and a small chalkboard filled the room to capacity, but no one complained. Being in plain view in the café lent an air of informality to the lessons. While the students were not distracted by the café patrons, the class may have been a distraction to the customers, or at least a curiosity. Class did get noisy at times, as the students struggled to understand new concepts and then explain to those who were slower in grasping new vocabulary.
Creating a curriculum to meet the needs of such a diverse group of learners was another challenge. Finding common ground among café workers, satellite dish installers, and auto body mechanics was not easy. So, after some discussion and informal needs assessments with those involved, we agreed to provide instruction on basic communication in the workplace, customer service, and employment-related vocabulary, such as insurance and safety. We also included some basic skills such as banking and following directions, which all the students needed.
In the beginning, it was difficult to assess the students' actual abilities because they often relied on each other to translate. Testing, although not welcomed by the students, was required by the grant so we did conduct pre- and post-course testing using Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS) instruments. Having only nine weeks of classes, we knew gains would be minimal but we also believed that it was important to show progress in a more tangible way for the students. As is often the case, they did want to know the results and were impressed with even minimal gains.
Since the students' abilities ranged from NRS high beginner to high intermediate and they had expressed the desire to practice reading and writing as well as speaking, we chose activities that could benefit all the students in a multilevel class. Initially, they were reluctant to speak in English, especially since it was much easier to ask a classmate to explain in Polish. But the students soon overcame this reluctance and began to ask questions in English as they worked through dialogues and filling out forms. We used banking forms (account applications, checks, deposit and withdrawal slips) and business forms (catalog orders, telephone messages, memos, fax sheets, e-mails, pay stubs) for both reading and writing practice. Although they labored in reading the instructions, students' familiarity with the structure of the forms made completing them relatively easy. Using forms from their respective jobs made the lessons more authentic and relevant for the students and all of them seemed to enjoy learning new vocabulary from the occupations of their fellow students.
As is common with many ESOL classes, we lost several of the original eight students along the way. One returned to Poland and another stopped coming because of a heavy workload. We did, however, pick up two new students due to our location in the neighborhood and word of mouth. Although the local adult education center offers ESOL classes, all our students felt that the classroom-café suited their needs better. Class time was adjusted for their work schedules, the class was very small, and they felt comfort able in the café, often getting a snack before or after class and practicing a little more English before they walked home.
While the employers and students all considered the class successful in improving students' ability to communicate in English, we had to deal with many of the same problems found in more traditional classes. Although the initial grant application had specified 30 hours of instruction, which is fewer than most traditional ABE classes, whether in a center or in the workplace, we were only able to provide 27 hours before the deadline. The students all said they learned a lot, and those who persevered until the class finished did show some test score gains. All of the students admitted that they spoke mostly Polish at home and often spoke Polish at work, so the ESOL class represented one of their few chances to practice English. Three hours a week was not enough for significant improvement. Attendance was good but only one student attended every class, while the others averaged between 15 and 18 hours. The café was a charming place, but its use as a classroom required some creativity on our part, since we could use only a small blackboard and had virtually no open floor space.
In terms of a workplace model, ours had some advantages. Small employers with only a few students were able to give their employees the opportunity to attend ESOL class locally. The curriculum was customized, and the location and time were arranged to fit the students' schedules. Their cultural bond made the students very comfortable with each other from the start and supportive, patient, and helpful to classmates. However, using only English was a hurdle, especially in the early classes.
We are exploring strategies for continuing the class. Sharing costs among employers holds some promise. Another option may be to ask employers to purchase slots for interested students, and for us to augment those revenues with state funds. Finding a foundation or agency to provide funding is another possibility, especially if the project emphasizes the same kind of flexibility we incorporated into our class. The location and environment were indeed a plus, enhancing the appeal of the class for our students and supporting their persistence throughout the term. It was our own "Crossroads Café." We might even be able to expand to the Polish deli next door, and add shopping for sausages and pickles to the curriculum.
About the Authors
Andy Tyskiewicz has 25 years experience in adult basic education as a teacher, trainer, and administrator. He is Division Director of Community Education for the Capitol Region Education Council in Hartford. Former chair of the board of the New England Literacy Resource Center, he is now professional development chair of the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE).
Aileen Halloran is a certified ESOL teacher and has spent many years teaching in all areas of adult basic education. She currently works at the Capitol Region Education Council in the Division of Community Education providing training and technical assistance to adult education teachers and working in the community to set up new programs.
Alpha Nicholson brings his background as a lawyer to the ESOL classes he teaches. He has taught ESOL classes in the workplace and most recently spent the summer teaching ESOL to middle school teachers in China.