Will Shorter ESL Classes Coming To City Colleges Of Chicago Help Or Hurt?

Adult Ed 1
About 50 people at Daley College protested changes to City Colleges of Chicago's English as a Second Language program on July 25, 2019. Kate McGee / WBEZ
Adult Ed 1
About 50 people at Daley College protested changes to City Colleges of Chicago's English as a Second Language program on July 25, 2019. Kate McGee / WBEZ

Will Shorter ESL Classes Coming To City Colleges Of Chicago Help Or Hurt?

WBEZ brings you fact-based news and information. Sign up for our newsletters to stay up to date on the stories that matter.

Jose Lorenzo earned his bachelor’s degree from Roosevelt University this spring after moving here from Mexico four years ago without speaking much English. Last week, he made his way back to where his education in the United States began: Daley College on Chicago’s far Southwest Side.

He took English classes there when he first moved to Chicago. It was in those English classes where he polished the basics and, in advanced classes, learned how to write five paragraph essays and read books like Charlotte’s Web.

“It’s like a baby. You know nothing,” Lorenzo said. “Thanks to God and thanks to Daley [College], people helped me to get through this pathway.”

But starting this fall, the English classes at Daley College that propelled Lorenzo through college will be cut back. City Colleges of Chicago is overhauling its English as a Second Language programs to try to improve student performance and standardize the classes across the six campuses that offer adult education.

They want more students to advance through the six ESL classes so they’re prepared to transition to college level work or to earn industry certificates. Last fall, the Illinois Community College Board put City Colleges on probation because not enough students were successfully completing the different levels. The classes are free.

“We were not performing well with our student outcomes,” said Maureen Fitzpatrick, associate vice chancellor of adult education at City Colleges. “That’s what’s driving this.”

But many teachers and students believe the changes, particularly the classes that will see reduced hours, will take the program in the wrong direction, hurting this vulnerable student population. Last week, Lorenzo joined around 50 students at Daley College to protest the changes.“If we cut this, we are cutting the possibility to [us] moving forward because at the end of the day if you do good, I do good,” Lorenzo said, explaining why he decided to go to Daley and support his classmates. “We live in the same city so we need to help each other.”

Adult Education 2
Jose Lorenzo joined a protest against changes to City Colleges of Chicago’s ESL program at Daley College on July 25, 2019. He fears reduced class hours will hurt students. He credits the program with giving him the English foundation he needed to go on to college. Kate McGee / WBEZ

Lacking a “clear pathway for students”

The ESL program at City Colleges serves an extremely diverse group of students.

Some students are taking English classes to better communicate at the doctor’s office or in their jobs. Others want to eventually go to college. Last year, City Colleges served 25,000 adult education students, making it the largest provider of free adult education classes in Illinois. It not only includes ESL classes, but citizenship classes and classes for adults trying to earn their high school general equivalency degree.

Previously, classes were offered across the different colleges at varying lengths, up to 256 hours of instruction per semester. According to class rosters at Daley and Truman Colleges, which are the two largest adult education programs, nearly a third of classes at Daley from last fall were over 224 hours. Most classes at Truman College were 128 hours last fall. Now, every class across City Colleges will be 96 hours. And classes will now run for eight weeks instead of sixteen.

All teachers also will use a new textbook with a revamped curriculum. City Colleges says they based the new program on adult education classes at nearby community colleges, as well as the course structure at the City Colleges’ Wright College, where students are meeting state benchmarks, according to data from the district.

“In past efforts to be so flexible with access we had lost that sense of a clear pathway for students,” Fitzpatrick said. “So the curriculum is now its coordinated across the colleges, by level.”

The goal is to get more students to complete the program and also transition to college or earn an entry-level certification, like a certified nursing assistant or forklift operator.

City Colleges received a $300,000 state grant to launch a pilot program that connects ESL students with certifications programs.

“If we cut hours, we will cut the quality”

But teachers are skeptical students will be able to successfully transition now that many of the courses hours are being condensed. They say there the various class lengths were designed to meet the different needs of the student population they serve.

“If we have less hours to study, to learn, we wouldn’t be able to learn as quickly as we have done and it will be harder,” Lorenzo said.

Kathleen Baker teaches at Daley College. She says when she gets advanced ESL students in the highest level of the program, they’re often at a fifth and sixth grade English reading level. Her job is to get them to ninth grade. But she told the City Colleges’ board of trustees last month she’s worried.

“If we cut hours, we will cut the quality and we will fail to give our students the base they need to go on to our other programs that offer them pathways to success in this country, reinforcing inequities not overcoming them,” Baker said.

Teachers stress learning English is extremely difficult, especially when students are constantly pulled away by work and raising children. They point to gains made in recent years as a sign they’re improving.

Research shows the more time an ESL student is in class, the better they do on the CASAS test, which is the reading exam administered by City Colleges to see if students are making progress. The research is from the Center for Applied Linguistics, a Washington D.C-based nonprofit that seeks to promote language learning.

Plus, they’re angry that City Colleges didn’t involve any current adult educators in this overhaul.

“Please bring us to the table so we can have a voice as a stakeholder,” Kimberly Taylor, an adult education instructor, said to the City Colleges board of trustees at a meeting last month.

The changes also were announced shortly after the adult educator union approved a new contract, which union leaders call a bait and switch. The changes could lead to reduced pay for teachers.

“Who is going to stay behind?”

Ultimately, union president George Roumbanis says the changes will hurt the adult students who struggle the most and are the most difficult to teach. He says if students don’t feel they’re progressing, they’ll leave the program

“Who is going to stay behind?” he asked. “People who can keep up with the intensity of the program. Maybe, at the end of the day, a year from now, two years from now, the scores will improve because the only students who are here are students … who have been really cherry-picked.”

He said that goes against the mission of community college to serve everyone.

Back at the protest at Daley College, another ESL student, Jose Padilla had a message for City Colleges leadership.

“The people want to make us learning English faster, I encourage them to learn a new language in the same time they’ve given to us,” he said. “It is not easy.”

Padilla, other students and teachers plan to continue protesting the changes at Thursday’s board meeting at Kennedy-King College.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.