How can Chatham County immigrants learn English? Adults have two options — and they’re both free.

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For most immigrants migrating to Chatham County without English fluency, language presents both a concern and an opportunity.

Yet, while children can learn English in school, many barriers prevent their parents from dedicating themselves to the language — among them time, availability and cost. To address that need, two Chatham nonprofits, Central Carolina Community College and Chatham County Literacy Council, offer English instruction free of charge and at various times throughout the week.

Here’s how they do it:

Central Carolina Community College

Free to all, CCCC’s ESL classes are one of several offerings under its College & Career Readiness program. As a Title II program, the college’s ESL classes receive federal funding via the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

“That’s why we only hire well-qualified and trained instructors in ESL/ESOL instruction,” CCCC’s Tammie Quick told the News + Record. “… While we know we’re doing good, we’re not do-gooders. This is a very professional educational program and sanctioned at the highest levels.”

CCCC offers classes at the Siler City Center at 400 Progress Blvd. as well as at its Chatham Health Sciences Center in Pittsboro. In Pittsboro, CCCC offers evening ESL classes from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday. In Siler City, students can attend morning classes from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays or from 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.

Students can also choose to learn online; registration opens weekly.

To register, students can call CCCC’s lead ESL instructor, Julia Herbón, at 919-545-8667 or email her at jherbon@cccc.edu.

“The important thing is that the student leaves a message, and then we will contact that student back,” Herbón said. “Some students just show up to the building, and we get their contact information, and we register them.” 

At a minimum, students will be asked to provide their basic contact information. The college doesn’t ask for documentation status.

“Then we’ll talk in that initial interview to see if the student has learned English before, what their goals are, what they want to do, in what area they live, because we want to just make sure we’re just recommending the appropriate class,” Herbón told the News + Record. “We ask about distance because we have transportation. We have free transportation in the morning.”

Once registered, students will undergo an English-language placement test to help instructors determine which classes would best fit their needs. The college groups students into classes based on their English levels, beginner to advanced.

In class, students participate in collaborative activities, conversations, plus reading and writing, according to Herbón. Instructors lead students in playing games, using technology and simulating the language students will use outside of class.

Throughout the program, students will also undergo assessments to test their progress.

“Some of them improve really, really fast, and some others take care of their time,” Herbón said. “But like I always tell them, if you come to class and you’re committed, you will always move forward. I have never had a student who went down a level. Attendance goes hand in hand with improvement, with progress.”

In Chatham County, CCCC’s ESL program serves about 100 students. Students come from a variety of backgrounds. Most come from Latin American countries, but others come from other parts of the world, too. Some never went to school or only have some high school education; others have advanced degrees.

According to Quick, CCCC’s ESL students routinely go above and beyond the college’s required performance measures; many, too, go on to blow their own goals out of the water.

“They improve their speaking skills, their writing skills, so it’s no surprise that these students are going to improve at work,” Herbón said. “They will get better jobs, or a job salary increase ... Many of our students take a GED in English. They graduate; they go to college, so they get a certification. That’s what we do, and so we see great results with our program.”

Chatham Literacy

Chatham Literacy, a Siler City nonprofit, offers a similar bundle of services to CCCC, according to program coordinator Leslie Ocampo, but with a few key differences.

Among them? A different model, more scheduling flexibility and a lower student-to-teacher ratio. Their tutors are all volunteers and instruct up to four students at a time.

“Chatham Literacy’s ESOL program is unique in that it offers schedule flexibility and one-on-one and small group tutoring depending on the needs of the adult learners,” Ocampo told the News + Record. “Our learners work with their tutors to determine the tutoring schedule and how often they meet.”

To sign up, aspiring students can call Chatham Literacy at 919-742-0578 and schedule an appointment to initiate the registration process. During their appointment, students will fill out an application and take an English-language placement test.

“Our application mainly asks for contact information and background information like educational history and availability,” Ocampo said. “We do not ask about documentation status, nor do we require identification unless a person is applying to our citizenship program.”

Only adults 18 years and older who live or work in Chatham County are eligible for services. Enrolled students will then have three options: They can tutor in-person, online, or via “a digital app from their phones or computers,” per Ocampo.

According to Ocampo, Chatham Literacy’s ESOL program typically serves about 150 students. Half are in their 40s to 50s, and 95% of their students are Hispanic.

Upon signing on to receive services from Chatham Literacy, students commit to a year’s worth of tutoring and to attend at least one tutoring session every week for two hours. Homework is optional.

“Even if students are busy, they can work their schedules to tutor late evenings or even on weekends,” Ocampo said. “It all depends on the compatibility of their schedule with that of their tutors’.”

Tutors help students grow in all four components of language acquisition — reading, writing, listening and speaking — and to track their students’ progress, Chatham Literacy conducts annual reading assessments.

When do students finish the program? Whenever they’d achieved the goals or level of English fluency they set themselves.

On average, according to Ocampo, a quarter of students go up one grade level in their reading abilities by the time they’re assessed in the spring. About 35% go on to check off long-term goals like earning their GEDs, getting new jobs or receiving promotions at work.

“Eighty percent of our ESOL learners will achieve a short-term goal, which is tutor- or self-reported, such as being able to talk with a child’s teacher, talking with a doctor without the help of their child, improved conversation skills or increased comprehension,” Ocampo said. “ ... It’s never too early, never too late to learn.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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