New London Adult Ed helping immigrants become productive citizens

Meihui Weng, an immigrant from China, writes the answer to an assignment on the white board during an intermediate English as a second language class at New London Adult and Continuing Education on March 28, 2017.  The adult education school is a major resource for many immigrants taking English classes as well as civics classes, GED education and specialized skills training. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Meihui Weng, an immigrant from China, writes the answer to an assignment on the white board during an intermediate English as a second language class at New London Adult and Continuing Education on March 28, 2017. The adult education school is a major resource for many immigrants taking English classes as well as civics classes, GED education and specialized skills training. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

New London — Tucked away inside an office building at 3 Shaw’s Cove, more than a dozen adult students sit in a classroom hunched over their computer screens, headphones covering their ears with looks on their faces ranging from consternation to sudden enlightenment.

Class instructor Andrea Fenton bops back and forth from student to student, answering calls for “teacher” from those struggling while others repeat English words corresponding to the pictures on their computer screens.

The Rosetta Stone program portion of the day’s work is just one element of the basic English for speakers of other languages, or ESOL, at New London Adult and Continuing Education, where the students come from all walks of life and in this class alone speak Arabic, Spanish, Chinese and Haitian Creole, among other languages.

“At my level, there is a lot of checking for understanding,” Fenton says as she moves on to help another of her students.

This basic ESOL class is one of more than a dozen English classes of differing skill levels offered daily through Adult Ed at Shaw’s Cove and at satellite sites in Groton and New London.

New London Adult Education Executive Director Maria Pukas said the ESOL offerings have grown over the past several years to meet the need and extra classes have been added despite a steady drop in state funding: 8 percent last year and 11 percent this year.

Adult Ed is funded jointly from the state and New London school district. The state’s share has decreased over the past several years, leaving the school district to boost its share from $815,000 this year to a proposed $872,000 for fiscal year 2017-18. The program's budget is expected to drop by nearly $190,000 in the upcoming year because of an overall dip in state funds, which is likely to total just over $1 million, down from $1.3 million last year, according to school budget documents. Adult Ed holds fundraisers, such as the annual Winefest by the Sea, to supplement its budget.

State statute requires local school districts to provide basic adult education, ESOL, high school diploma, GED and citizenship classes free of charge to any adult 17 years and older who is not enrolled in public schools. The district is reimbursed on a sliding scale based on the wealth of a community.

New London Adult Education also offers a host of other programs and classes centered on providing jobs skills training: certified nursing assistant, automotive tech, Microsoft office, culinary arts and medical terminology with office receptionist.

Civics lessons also are intertwined with the programs. Pukas said the classes occasionally host visits from local city and state leaders, pitch in locally for things like a cleanup day at Ocean Beach Park and walk the streets of New London learning about its history and government.

The students range from U.S. citizens who stopped attending school early because of unforeseen circumstances to immigrants who were professionals in their own country and are now performing janitorial work at one of the casinos because they don’t know enough English to find a different job.

“They all have this desire to learn and to do well for themselves and for their families. That’s what drives them,” Pukas said.

As of mid-February, Pukas said there were 408 ESOL students taking the classes that are offered during the day and at night. More than 800 people are expected to take advantage of the Adult Ed classes overall, for everything from a high school credit program to citizenship preparation classes.

There isn’t such a thing as a typical student in the ESOL classes, Pukas said.

“In these classes we have people that come from all over the world. You have people that are with limited language proficiencies in their own language to professionals, attorneys, doctors and veterinarians in their own country and have to learn English to start their career in the United States. It runs the gamut,” she said.

But they share a common bond, exemplified in one of the intermediate classes taught by Jennifer Smith. All the students in there can speak some English and, despite their backgrounds or native tongues, remained engaged with one another, helping others to understand things like the difference between “air conditioning” and “air conditioner,” or “carpet” and “rug,” during one class.

There was also a common theme when the students were asked why they were there.

One man, originally from Colombia who now lives in Gales Ferry, said one of his fears is being stopped by police and, despite being innocent of any crime, being unable to answer their questions in English.

“I want to study and get a better job and life for myself,” said Mariama Sidibeh, a 19-year-old from East Lyme who immigrated with her family to the U.S. from the West African country of Gambia. She speaks Mandinka, Wolof and some French and English.

Arvind Patel, 66, an Indian native now living in Waterford, came to the U.S. four years ago to join his sister and mother. In India he was a farmer. He now will join his sister at her store in New London but needs more English to be able to communicate.

Yi Yang of Uncasville came to the U.S. with his wife from China to join his son, an exchange student staying with a host family while attending St. Bernard High School in Montville. Yang said he learned English in China and can read and write well enough but never had the opportunity to practice speaking. His native tongue is Mandarin Chinese.

He said the purpose of mastering the English language is simply to be able to take care of his family.

Yuleidy Ceballos, 24, a native of Caracas, Venezuela, said she seized on an opportunity to leave a country in turmoil and with few job opportunities. She came to live with her aunt in New London. Her sister, mother and father remain in Venezuela and are having difficulty obtaining visas.

“I feel good here. Safe. But I worry for my family. It’s hard,” she said. “I wish my family could come here, too.”

She came to the country with little English and now is working as a bartender here in New London. She plans to study medical terminology.

There are dozens of other stories and Pukas said everybody comes in with a goal, whether it's employment or higher education.

“It’s a wonderful thing because it’s the way I think the world should be,” Pukas said. “Everybody gets along. Everybody has something in common. They’re all trying to make it in this country. They all come here because they want a better life for themselves and their families and they work really hard,” she said.

New London Adult Ed does not keep records of specific countries of origin for the students and does not ask whether they are documented or undocumented.

“I always tell people (that) we are in the education business and not the immigration business,” Pukas said. “We are here to educate. Everybody comes through those doors has a purpose; they want to learn English and they want to become contributing members of the society and the U.S.”

Pukas speaks passionately about the programs and particularly the immigrants, having been one herself when her parents moved to the United States as political exiles from the Castro regime in Cuba.

She landed in New London at the age of 14 knowing no English. There was no English as a second language class at the time in the school district but she said she was helped along by dedicated teachers at New London High School. Her parents attended night classes at New London Adult Education.

Pukas would go on to attend Connecticut College and the University of Connecticut and teach in the New London school system. She later held the role of director of bilingual education for the New London school district before taking on her new role as Adult Ed director about 10 years ago.

“I’ve walked in their shoes,” Pukas said of the immigrants. “I’ve come full circle. This is where I belong. This is where I think I can make a difference. I believe in the work we do here. We are community-centered and trying to do what we can with the very little funding we have."

g.smith@theday.com

Instructor Andrea Fenton helps a student go through letters of the alphabet during a basic English as a second language class at New London Adult and Continuing Education on March 28, 2017. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Instructor Andrea Fenton helps a student go through letters of the alphabet during a basic English as a second language class at New London Adult and Continuing Education on March 28, 2017. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
German Mancera, right, an immigrant from Colombia, helps Hernan Mamani, an immigrant from Peru, with an assignment during an intermediate English as a second language class at New London Adult and Continuing Education on March 28, 2017. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
German Mancera, right, an immigrant from Colombia, helps Hernan Mamani, an immigrant from Peru, with an assignment during an intermediate English as a second language class at New London Adult and Continuing Education on March 28, 2017. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Alexa Sime, left, and Abdul Mahlo, both 2 years old, play with toy food as their parents take an English as a second language class at New London Adult and Continuing Education on March 28, 2017.  (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Alexa Sime, left, and Abdul Mahlo, both 2 years old, play with toy food as their parents take an English as a second language class at New London Adult and Continuing Education on March 28, 2017. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

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