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Holy Name of Jesus ESL Program attracts devoted students, teachers

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Adult learners attending English classes are supported by church and school community
ESL students display certificates from their class

ESL students display certificates from their class /Holy Name of Jesus Parish

Underwriting support from:
Program Coordinator Melissa Gary and Father Stephen Dudek

Program Coordinator Melissa Gary and Father Stephen Dudek /Holy Name of Jesus Parish

ESL students hard at work

ESL students hard at work /Holy Name of Jesus Parish

It’s a cold, snowy night in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A few classrooms in an otherwise dark school building fill up with adult students in the English as a Second Language Program run by Holy Name of Jesus Parish. Most of the students are native Spanish speakers and almost all are tired after a long day of work. Program Coordinator Melissa Gary tells her volunteer teachers that they can offer their students a choice: end class early due to the weather, or continue until the regular dismissal time. The students’ response is unanimous: they want to continue learning.

Examples such as this abound in the history of the ten-year-old program, which has a way of cultivating loyalty and enthusiasm in its students and volunteer teachers.

“It’s rewarding,” says Gary, a warm, energetic former businesswoman who once volunteered for the program herself.

Now Gary serves as Program Coordinator and substitute teacher, overseeing dozens of students in low beginner through advanced English classes and 18 volunteer teachers, some of whom have taught in the program for as long as eight years. Many instructors are retired teachers or business people; one is a flight attendant.

“They all have their own strengths,” says Gary, and each shares a passion for teaching English to their eager students.

Many of the teachers are members of St. Robert of Newminster Parish, one piece of the partnership that includes the Literacy Center of West Michigan and the multi-parish school San Juan Diego Academy next door to Holy Name of Jesus.

“We use every inch of the space,” Gary says.

Every classroom is scheduled down to the last minute so flexibility is key. Due to space constraints, Father Stephen Dudek even gave Gary and her teachers permission to use the sacristy as a place to learn.

Due to a generous grant from the Doug and Maria DeVos Foundation, both the adults in the ESL program and the students at San Juan Diego Academy now have a computer room equipped with the Rosetta Stone language program. When not implementing this tool, the teachers follow the All Stars curriculum and use CASAS pre- and post-testing. Last program year, 79% of students increased significantly in literacy skills.

Many students start in beginner level classes and advance all the way through the program until they are able to enroll in community college courses. Several students continue to attend class at Holy Name of Jesus in addition to their college classes because they have formed such strong bonds with their teachers and fellow students.

Gary sees the “determination, dedication, and commitment of the parish” as one of the program’s greatest strengths. While space continues to be a great need and childcare would allow more adult learners to attend class, the spirit behind the program allows it to thrive.

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