Written by: Tianyi Dong
A stylist back in her native Thailand, Wanthana Tidchom arrived in Berkeley in 1993 without knowing English but eager to become a part of her new community. She soon found her way to the Berkeley Adult School and attended English as Second Language (ESL) classes from morning to evening for a couple of years, until she was confident enough in her language abilities to study at a beauty school in Hayward where she acquired her license. Now with a successful salon on Shattuck Avenue and a family to take care of, she no longer needs intensive English study, but she still takes English classes to refine her skills from time to time. Tidchom says her ability to speak and to read and write in English is very helpful when working with her customers and operating a business, and that without the Adult School, she probably wouldn’t be working now.
“I really appreciate the adult school teachers, and the government for giving me the opportunity to learn,” Tidchom says. “It is always important for people to learn new things.”
Free and open to all
The ESL program at Berkeley Adult School is free, open to all, and offers a variety of classes organized into eleven levels. Students can begin at numerous points throughout the year. According to BAS principal Tom Reid, the flexible arrangement makes the program accessible to people who are ready for language learning at different times, and is responsive to changes in students’ childcare and job situations.
To get started, newcomers at the Adult School begin with an intake test that usually includes an oral interview and a writing sample to determine placement. Students are offered opportunities to participate in orientation sessions that provide them with strategies to be successful in the program.
When Tidchom first came to Berkeley, she met Laura Grossmann who has taught at the Adult School since 1990. Today Grossmann’s high intermediate level ESL class has 36 students from 24 nations and meets for three hours every weekday.
“No one and no law, makes them do it,” Laura Grossmann says. “They are here because they want to be.”
Students learn more than just language
The ESL program curriculum is designed not only to promote English proficiency but also to support students in the development of important life skills. For example, in a lesson about health care, students learn about terms for parts of the body and common illnesses as well as appropriate language for talking about their feelings. Over the course of a year, students also take four to five standardized tests on language skills that include assessing skills from the basic ability to read street signs to the more complex writing required in workplace memos.
According to Reid, a distinctive feature of the ESL program at BAS is its rich learning environment, including the wide range of backgrounds among the students. Students learn to “appreciate the various dimensions of diversity,” including age, nationality, and gender identity. Reid recalls the impact of the program on a Thai transgender student who is now getting ready to start college.
“It really humanizes the difference to have so much diversity in your classroom,” Reid says.
For students who come from backgrounds and places where there is less openness about diversity, Grossmann says that one important aspect of an ESL experience is providing a safe atmosphere for students to learn how to voice differing opinions respectfully. “Students learn that people do [hold differing opinions] and that it’s okay,” Grossmann says. “Students learn to express themselves with kindness, respect, and tolerance. That’s an important piece of American democracy.”
To highlight the importance of understanding American democracy, her classroom is decorated with posters that feature the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Declaration of Independence. Following the presidential election last year, students were especially curious about the political system and current events, and Grossmann would point to the posters and tell them, “These are the documents that will keep you safe.”
Once students are ready to move beyond the ESL program, many options are open to them. They can sign on to the Career and Academic Readiness track that offers them a way to earn a GED or high school equivalency diploma and continue on a Career Technical Education pathway, or participate in the Bridge to College program with courses focusing on academic essay writing and can offer students college credit. Students work with a transition liaison and can enroll in courses co-sponsored by the Berkeley Adult School and Berkeley City College.
Many BAS students also take Career Technical Education classes at the Adult School, such as the English for Business Communication courses that prepare them for a professional workplace, so that students can find meaningful work, and, like Tidchom, even start their own business.
“Our mission is to help students develop the skills they need to move on, by going into a career or college, so they can become fully engaged members of society, have more earning potential and contribute to their family,” Grossmann says.
According to Reid, a critical shortage of adult educational opportunities in the East Bay is being met with every Adult School ESL classroom filled with motivated students, like Tidchom.
“We’ve made our focus our students and on ensuring they are learning skills they will need,” Reid says. “We define our success not by holding onto students, but by advancing as many students as we can to meet their life goals in their new country.”
More information about the Berkeley Adult School ESL program can be found on the program’s web page.
This feature article was researched and written by Tianyi Dong, an intern working with BUSD through UC Berkeley’s Public Service Center. Born and raised in Tianjin, China, and a non-native English speaker herself, Dong is in her final year at UC Berkeley with majors in history and linguistics. She is interested in pursuing post graduate studies and work in the education field.