Free ESL program grows rapidly after launch in Ypsi Township

A program that provides GED preparation, a free English as a Second Language curriculum, and other adult education services has continued to grow its presence in Ypsilanti Township after launching there in 2018.
A Washtenaw County-based program that provides GED preparation, a free English as a Second Language (ESL) curriculum, and other adult education services has continued to grow its presence in Ypsilanti Township after launching classes there in 2018.

The program, Adult Transitions, has been operating in Washtenaw County for just over 25 years. It started in a since-demolished church in Ypsilanti Township's West Willow neighborhood. The program now operates in three locations: on the Washtenaw Community College (WCC) main campus in Ann Arbor Township, at the Harriet Street Center at 332 Harriet St. in Ypsilanti, and at the Ypsilanti Township Community Center at 2025 E. Clark Road.

The program's initial mission was to help students "upskill," or earn a GED credential with a focus on gaining employment. That's still the aim of the GED Pathways prong of the program. ESL Pathways is the main emphasis at the Ypsilanti Township Community Center. Bonnie Truhn, program director for Adult Transitions, notes that the ESL class at the township center is non-credentialed, but it's free and open to the general public – as opposed to WCC's regular for-credit ESL class.

The program took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic. But once in-person classes returned, the need for ESL classes continued growing. Truhn credits that expansion to Program Coordinator Laurie Englehart. 

"Laurie has grown the ESL program to the point that we already still need more space," she says, noting that the township just gave the program two more additional classrooms to use in the community center.
Adult Transitions Program Coordinator Laurie Englehart.
Englehart says a variety of people seek to brush up on their English skills, including people who are "highly-educated in the country they come from," in some cases holding a master's degree or Ph.D. 

"They might be here doing work at the University of Michigan or their spouse is. Or maybe they're a dentist in their country but their credential doesn't translate here," Englehart says. "We'll help them improve their English skills and help them find out how they can get a credential so they can do that work here in Michigan."

Staff test all students' language skills as they enter the program, and Englehart says the ESL program is specialized to each cohort of learners. Each student also collaborates with staff to come up with an individualized academic plan.

"You might get a class heavy on parents who have kids in school trying to figure out how to advocate for their child, going to parent-teacher conferences, navigating living in the community," Englehart says. 
Lisa Gruich teaching an Adult Transitions ESL class at Ypsilanti Township Community Center
Another cohort might be full of degreed professionals who want to improve English skills around business writing.  

"The teacher will tailor lessons to those concerns," Englehart says. 

Nadia Fakchich is an advanced student in the ESL program who came to the U.S. from Morocco speaking Arabic, French, and Spanish, but no English. She says a lack of English skills complicated everything from ordering in restaurants to understanding the doctor who helped her birth her daughter. 

Fakchich says she tried to learn through reading grammar books but saw little improvement, although watching American movies with Arabic subtitles and practicing with her daughters helped. Entering the ESL Pathways program last year helped her stay on track with her English skill goals, though, and she's back for a second year of programming.
Lisa Gruich teaching an Adult Transitions ESL class at Ypsilanti Township Community Center.
"Now, at this stage, praise be to God, I have come to understand almost everything that is said to me. I have not reached the stage where I can answer fluently, but I will not give up, as I have ambitions to finish my studies here in America," she says.

Truhn says the program's funding currently comes from three sources: WCC's general fund, local and state taxes, and federal money via the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Truhn notes that in 2023, the state of Michigan's budget appropriated up to $40 million total for adult education programs. The budget allocated funds to 10 intermediate school districts (ISDs) throughout the state, including the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, to serve as the fiscal agents for these funds. Each ISD allows providers of adult education to apply for $15 million for new and innovative adult education programming and another $2 million for adult literacy efforts with partner nonprofits. 

That's in contrast to the last few decades, when budgets for adult education have consistently shrunk.

"Every year, funding was scaled way back, and so many programs had to close and consolidate," Truhn says. 
WCC ESL Program Liason Ruthie Ferrier.
Not only is the state funding sorely needed, Truhn says, but the federal government has chipped in money for adult education through WIOA. 

"It's a momentous year for adult education," Truhn says. "The real story is that this is the first time in 30 years we've received national funding for adult education."

Truhn says she's glad that state and federal funding for adult education has increased, but there's still more need.

"We now serve about 30,000 people in Michigan with adult education programming," Truhn says. "Our goal is to increase the number that sign up. There are about 900,000 adults without a diploma or who speak English less than very well, and we're only serving about 3% of that population. We need services, and we need to reach out and create awareness."

More information about the Adult Transitions program can be found here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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