Speaking Up for Adult Education: Language ETC Testifies at the DC City Council

Follow the money, as they say.

On April 1, Mayor Gray released his proposed budget for fiscal 2012. One proposed cut in particular has the potential to affect our students, and not in a good way: almost half a million dollars to be cut from the adult and family education grants program at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE). That’s money OSSE won’t have available to fund Language ETC and other adult education programs in the District.

Local literacy groups have spoken out, letting the mayor and the City Council know how crucial it is to maintain funding for adult ed. An adult with the ability to speak, read, and write English has a far better chance of becoming employed than someone without those skills. And skilled, fully employed, taxpaying residents are what our city needs—right?

LETC's delegation to the City Council hearing on April 20. From left, weekend volunteer coordinator Lee Griffith, student Damasus Djagli, student Gladys Bagwell, program director Ann-Lloyd Hufstader, board member Susan Hattan, and executive director Carolyn Morrissey.

On Wednesday, April 20, 2011, Language ETC staff and students testified at a hearing before the DC City Council on the 2012 budget for OSSE. Along with the DC Learns coalition and other local adult ed groups, we asked the Council to provide adequate funding for adult education programs. LETC was ably represented by executive director Carolyn Morrissey, program director Ann-Lloyd Hufstader, students Gladys Bagwell and Damasus Djagli, weekend volunteer coordinator Lee Griffith, and board member Susan Hattan. Excerpts from the testimonies of Carolyn, Damasus, and Gladys are presented below.

For suggestions on how we, as volunteer teachers, can weigh in on this issue, check out Five Actions You Can Take to Save DC Adult Literacy Programs on the DC Learns website.

Excerpts from Carolyn Morrissey’s testimony

We have come today to ask you and your colleagues on the DC Council for help in providing adequate funding in the DC budget for adult education programs. Language ETC is the largest nonprofit provider of English as a Second Language or ESL services in the District of Columbia. We serve over 1,600 immigrants in this area each year. We have provided English language instruction, computer classes, and other educational services to adult immigrants in our community for over 15 years.

We recognize that these are difficult economic times and that the Council faces tough choices as it considers the city’s budget. Nevertheless, we are deeply concerned that the proposed reduction of over $472,000 in adult education funding goes too far. It will also be counterproductive in terms of achieving the city’s long-term objectives, given that a 1 percent increase in literacy scores leads to an estimated 2.5 percent increase in labor productivity. [. . . ]

There is great need for ESL services as part of overall adult education efforts. More than 5 percent of DC residents speak English “less than very well”—which is the Census category most often used to indicate a need for ESL classes.

In the OSSE oversight hearing held last month, members of this committee appropriately focused on program performance. Two of the measures included in the OSSE budget request apply to our program, and we are proud to say that Language ETC has consistently performed well on both of them. The students we serve represent approximately 25 percent of the adult learners in OSSE-funded programs who complete 12 or more hours of instruction. In addition, over 70 percent of our students advance one level in English literacy over the course of a year. The budget proposes increases in both these measures, and we want to continue to be a partner in this effort.

Gladys, Carolyn, Ann-Lloyd, and Damasus waiting to give testimony.

We provide quarterly training for our volunteer teachers and tutors. This training is given by professional teachers and university educators in the field who donate their services or provide them for a reduced fee. In addition, we have ongoing workshops and peer learning events for those teachers seeking to share best practices.

For the past several years, we have worked aggressively to find efficiencies in our operation that would reduce costs without downgrading service. Our model relies almost entirely on volunteers. About 300 trained volunteers work with the approximately 600 adult students from over 60 countries enrolled in a typical term. Our five full-time employees and a few part-time employees are the bare minimum needed to develop and deliver a quality program of this magnitude. Our annual budget is approximately $700,000. Because we have been able to leverage substantial volunteer resources, the annual cost to advance an adult one level in English literacy is about $750. On top of this are the intangible benefits that stem from the synergy between our highly motivated volunteers and our equally enthusiastic student body.

It is important to recognize that the success of our program is not a one-way street. Our students put out enormous effort to improve their language skills. In turn, we all benefit from the increased contributions they are able to make to the community with those skills.

We are open seven days a week and offer day, evening, and weekend courses. Our evening students attend eight hours of class every week, while our daytime and weekend students spend six hours weekly in class. Most of our students juggle this class work against job and family responsibilities. Against all odds, they find the time to learn because they know how important it is if they are to achieve their aspirations. They are exactly the kind of committed, hard-working people that we want to live in our city and help build its future.

One thing about ESL programs is that a substantial number of students already have job skills—and language fluency alone is their primary barrier to advancement. We surveyed our students about a year ago and found that well over half of the 450 respondents had gotten a better job since studying English at Language ETC. The investment in ESL services is tiny relative to the return we can expect from these students. Continuing the investment in our students will pay off for the city in a myriad of ways. Increasing the number of qualified workers, who pay more taxes and more enthusiastically participate in the community, will improve the quality of life for all District residents.

Amevi Damasus Djagli’s testimony

My name is Damasus Djagli and I am a student at Language ETC in the District. One year ago, I came to the USA from Togo as a refugee. I applied for political asylum and was granted asylum two months ago.

Damasus Djagli in the hearing chamber.

Today, I want to talk about Language ETC and why schools that serve adult immigrants like me are important not only to us, but to the city. Before I came to Language ETC my English was very poor. I couldn’t understand what people were saying on the street, in the stores or anywhere. Not knowing the language, I couldn’t find a job, and I depended on my friend to help me get around because I didn’t understand what people were saying.

Language ETC gave me a scholarship to study, and now, after one year, I am in the Advanced level and can understand people in stores and in government offices. I can also speak, read, and write well enough that I can enter a ten-month job training program that is conducted entirely in English.

Without schools like Language ETC, we adult immigrants, who are hard-working and eager to find jobs and pay taxes, would have little recourse for supporting ourselves. A reduction in funding would create a significant disadvantage for the immigrant community and the city itself.

I ask you, Chairman Brown and members of the Committee of the Whole, not to cut funding for programs such as Language ETC. Thank you for your time.

Student Gladys Bagwell after presenting her testimony.

Gladys Bagwell’s testimony

My name is Gladys Bagwell and I am a student at Language ETC, in the High Intermediate class. I am from Ecuador, where I had two years of education. Last summer, I was looking for a school where I could study English. A friend, and the unemployment office, recommended Language ETC. Now I have taken three levels, and I have learned to write in English. I can fill out forms like a rental application or get a driver’s license.

My goal is to get a job in an office. I want to type and use computers. It is important to write to get this kind of job. Without the help of the school, I can’t find a better job to support myself. Language ETC is giving me the skills I need.

Thank you, Chairman Brown and members of the Council, for taking the time to consider this important issue.

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