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Adult Basic Education programs are popular

WORTHINGTON -- From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, the halls of the West Learning Center are bustling with people of all colors and all nationalities. Despite their differences in culture, a common thread runs between them -- they have a thirst for knowledge.

Marty Olsen has been the Adult Basic Education manager for District 518 Community Education for the past year. In that time, more than 800 students and approximately 75 volunteers have passed through the front doors of West Learning Center. They work together on English-speaking skills, share their culture and learn from each other with the goal of assimilating into the American way of life.

"There are a lot of different programs here," said Olsen, referring not just to Adult Basic Education (ABE) but family literacy, English Language Learners, special needs classes and Early Childhood Family Education programming. "We have classes at a variety of times because that's when people are able to come. We provide bussing and childcare for free to students who need it."

The ABE program is open to adults and youths ages 16 and older who are not enrolled in public school. ABE assists students wanting to earn their G.E.D. (general equivalency diploma), but also offers English as a Second Language and FastTRAC classes.

Through FastTrac, students gain specialized skills in a variety of programs thanks to a collaboration between ABE, Minnesota West Community and Technical College and the Southwest Minnesota Private Industry Council. The specialty programs currently include universal health care classes and industrial maintenance training.

This spring, seven students earned their certified nursing assistant certificates through FastTrac, while six completed the Trained Medication Aide program. Another 12 students are finishing up the industrial maintenance program and will take their boiler's license test next month.

Olsen said the collaboration began about four or five years ago and has helped numerous individuals get the experience they need to get a job. Classes are taught at Minnesota West, with the health care programs offered at the Worthington campus and industrial tech classes at Worthington High School. There is also a special welding program offered at the Jackson campus, which includes a collaboration with AGCO.

"AGCO has been instrumental in helping get some of the equipment the college needed," Olsen said, adding that other businesses have provided funding for certain programs.

"Basically, we identified areas where employers in southwest Minnesota have been asking for more skilled people," Olsen said. As a result, job placement is fairly high for those students who complete the programs.

Federal and state grants have funded the classes in the past, and Olsen said new funds are being applied for so the FastTrack program may be continued. The classes are free to students who have a financial hardship or difficult life situation.

"This past year we've been able to pretty much accommodate the people interested in the program," Olsen said. "The only time we have to deny the people the opportunity (to enroll) is if they don't test high enough to indicate they will be successful. We have tried with some of our English Language Learners, but some of them aren't ready yet."

Olsen recalled one young woman in the English Language Learner classes who had taken the CNA test on her own and failed. After going through the FastTrack program, she tested again and passed.

"The students are really pleased to have the Adult Basic Education instructor in the class to help them with their questions and concerns," Olsen said.

Meeting all needs

During the 2012-2013 school year, 808 students were enrolled in Adult Basic Education programming and spent more than 12 hours in the classroom. Of those, 456 students ranged in age from 25 to 44. Another 25 were ages 16 to 18; 119 were ages 45 to 59 and 25 students were over the age of 60.

"A lot of those would be our English Language Learners who came over as refugees," Olsen explained of the oldest students in the program.

The English Language Learner students come with a wide range of variables. Some are refugees who, up until five years ago had never thought of moving to the United States. Others have had no formal education in their home country, while still others have earned advanced degrees on foreign soil.

All, however, come in at the same level -- being unable to speak or read English.

"They're thrown into learning a new culture and a new language," Olsen said. "We're working on basic learning skills -- to study and learn -- and teach English as well."

Upon enrolling in the program, the individuals are tested on listening and reading skills and placed in a class based on the results of those tests.

"We have students who spend a few years with us and others that spend just a few months to get some of the basics," she added.

Josue Perez is a returning student in the English Language Learners program. A native of Guatemala, he came to the United States about 10 years ago. Perez found work and was able to make his way through life in Minnesota despite not knowing the language all that well.

Now, after changing jobs, Perez is in his seventh month in the ELL program.

"I want to learn some English and try to learn things about this country," he said, adding that English-speaking skills will help with his work and with everything else in life here.

"The teachers are very friendly and we get to know people from other nations," Perez said. "We get to communicate with them and learn from other countries."

Perez' story is similar to that of Maung Ngo, a refugee of Burma who has been in the U.S. since 2009. Ngo took six months of ELL classes at the West Learning Center before returning to Thailand. When he returned to Minnesota, he did so specifically to study.

"I want to improve my English," Ngo said. "When I was in Burma, in my village we didn't have schools. It's good for living here -- we can work and we can study."

Both Perez and Ngo are in the more advanced ELL classes because they have been students for a while. Since they both work, however, they aren't able to spend as much time in the classroom as others.

Gerardo Giovanny Martinez-Mejia has logged more than 1,000 hours of class time in the last year. His efforts to learn the English language, culture and history helped him to achieve his U.S. citizenship in March 2011.

Martinez-Mejia, a native of Mexico, has lived in the U.S. since 1988, but was always too busy working to take classes and learn English. After a car accident left him disabled, he now has the time to learn.

"I'm very happy, I'm very excited," he said. "We have good, friendly teachers here and a lot of education."

Volunteers a necessity

Nine part-time teachers help lead the classes offered through Adult Basic Education. While most are based in Worthington, Olsen also has teachers in the larger consortium of Pipestone, Rock, Nobles and Murray counties.

Those teachers are helped by approximately 75 volunteers in assisting the students.

"We make use of our volunteers a great deal," Olsen said. "What we've found is ... students who work one on one with a tutor, their attendance seems to go up."

Volunteers help with all aspects of Adult Basic Education, whether it is assisting a student working toward a G.E.D., being read to or speaking with an English Language Learner or doing flash cards with an individual working toward U.S. citizenship.

"We've used volunteers regularly in all of the programs and we couldn't do it without them," Olsen said. "They enhance the programs so much."

Karen Magyar has been volunteering with Adult Basic Education for more than a year. She works primarily with the beginner English Language Learners program.

"I was looking for what I consider a worthwhile endeavor to donate my time to," Magyar said, adding that it has been rewarding to be a volunteer.

"A lot of times they're really fun to work with -- especially if they're succeeding," she said. "It's always fun to work with someone who's making an effort. You like to see them making progress and moving to a different level."

Technology now a focus

A new focus in Adult Basic Education this year has been on the digital community. With students in District 518 slated to get iPads this fall, Olsen said parents need to understand the technology "so they're not afraid of it and they can help their children."

It isn't just students bringing home iPads, but employers requiring prospective employees to complete online job applications that is fueling the drive for technology education.

"We've purchased some iPads and will be able to set up some lessons on how they use a touch screen and how to apply for a job online," Olsen said.

In addition, the English Language Learners are taught how to use the computer lab, and students are encouraged to set up an email address.

"Technology is one of the things we really are trying to help our students not be afraid of -- to embrace," she added.

After this year, the G.E.D. program will also be shifting to new technology. As of Jan. 1, the G.E.D. will become a computer-based test.

"That's going to really push us to prepare the students not only for subject matter, but also for computer skills to be able to do the test," Olsen said.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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