ESL learners worry CLC changes will impede their goals

David and Lorena Palmer (from left), Maria Trujillo, Rita Pagan, all of Waukegan, Elena Suarez of North Chicago and Maria Vargas of Waukegan are worried that changes to CLC's ESL classes will impede their goals. | Judy Masterson/Sun-Times Media
Lorena Palmer of Waukegan is working at a downtown Waukegan ice cream parlor while studying English at CLC, which has rescheduled its ESL classes at the Lakeshore campus. | Judy Masterson/Sun-Times Media
Elena Suarez (left) of North Chicago and Maria Vargas, of Waukegan, both said they are committed to learning English to improve their lives. | Judy Masterson/Sun-Times Media
Maria Trujillo of Waukegan, an early childhood worker, said she wants a better job but needs to learn English first. She and nearly 100 other ESL students signed a petition that objected to what they originally thought were planned cuts to ESL by the College of Lake County. | Judy Masterson/Sun-Times Media
David and Lorena Palmer of Waukegan are fighting CLC's decision to reschedule its ESL classes. | Judy Masterson/Sun-Times Media

The 80 College of Lake County students who signed a petition, including some who wrote heartfelt letters protesting planned cuts to English as a Second Language (ESL) courses at the Lakeshore campus in Waukegan, may be glad to hear much of the ordeal was a scheduling error.

“It’s important for people to really understand what we’re doing,” said Richard Haney, the college’s vice president for educational affairs.

Haney explained a confusing schedule change under which free English classes will still be offered for the spring semester. The courses are currently held from 9 a.m. to noon, four mornings per week at Lakeshore, but will move to a 1:15 to 3:15 p.m. time slot Monday through Thursday. The upper level basic skills courses will still be offered in the morning.

But that may not help Maria Vargas, 26, who works a 10-hour afternoon shift in shipping and receiving at a Waukegan factory.

“When I came to the U.S., I met many obstacles, beginning with language,” Vargas said. “If you can’t speak English here, you don’t know anything. The college wants us to take higher level courses, get degrees, certificates, but we need English instruction to do that.”

CLC is making $200,000 in cuts to its Adult Basic Education program in addition to a loss of $84,000 in Illinois Community College Board funding, which makes up about 30 percent of the department’s budget. Haney has also cited “additional tightness” to the school’s overall budget.

Under new Illinois Community College Board funding rules, students in English as a Second Language and GED classes must show measurable gains, through testing. The school is shifting offerings to meet those requirements.

“ESL courses do lead to level gains, as long as students are appropriately placed,” Haney said. “ESL students progress through courses but at a certain point they top out, scoring beyond what courses are designed to serve. At that point, they should move into higher level instruction.”

But the higher-level English Language Instruction classes are offered at the Grayslake campus for a cost that can be an unaffordable burden for some students. Haney noted that financial aid is available.

Waukegan resident David Palmer, whose wife Lorena is a native of El Salvador and an ESL student at CLC, said the college should set its priorities with the community it serves in mind.

“CLC has been very successful in bringing together funding for programs important to the leadership,” said Palmer, citing $47.9 million for an expansion in Waukegan and a new small business development center. “We’re thankful for all those things, but ESL is a program that’s very important to this community.”

Lorena Palmer and other ESL students say CLC should be working to make it easier for immigrants to learn English. They said the afternoon classes will be more difficult for many to attend.

“People who can’t speak English are easy to exploit or abuse,” Palmer said in semi-fluent English at the downtown ice cream parlor where she works.

She is working to learn English so she can return to a career in medical laboratory technology, a field for which she holds a degree from the University of El Salvador.

“I want to contribute to the community,” said ESL student Maria Trujillo, of Waukegan, who dreams of a career in health care or education.

The new CLC budget also calls for the elimination of instruction for the Family Literacy program at the Waukegan Library and GED instruction at the Lake County Jail. But Haney said the school is now in talks with jail officials to work out a compromise.

Haney, who couldn’t say how many adjunct instructors might lose work under the changes, said CLC will consider offering English Language Instruction courses at the Lakeshore campus, even though past attempts have failed to attract the necessary enrollment.

ESL student Elena Suarez, who takes a bus to the Lakeshore campus from North Chicago, said the first question she’s asked during job inquiries is, “Do you know English?”

“I need to learn English,” Suarez said.

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