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Chicago: Lack of language resources is holding immigrants back

Thursday, May 14, 2009

It’s no secret that being able to speak English is critical to success in the workplace, but Chicago’s community college system makes it difficult for adults to gain the necessary language skills to find better job opportunities.

While the number of limited-English speakers in Chicago has varied little since 2000, funding for adult education has declined steadily. In the last five years, the system’s adult education funding, which mostly comes from the federal and state governments, was cut by more than 20 percent to $10.8 million.

“If our state is to recover and transition into the global economy, it will need a trained labor force, and English literacy is a key component of that training,” said Fred Tsao, policy director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).

Only 69,557 seats are available in the English as a Second Language classes for more than 575,000 limited English speakers in the entire state, Tsao said. The number of available seats has dropped 20 percent since 2002.

Since the Illinois Community College Board took over the adult education programs in 2001, funding and enrollment have both declined, Tsao said.

Compounding the problem is the shortage of ESL teachers.

“The problem is that they need more teachers than they can get,” said Victoria Vaccaro of Chicago, who is working towards her certification to teach bilingual and ESL classes. “There’s also a high burn-out rate with bilingual and ESL teachers because the teachers don’t know what they’re getting themselves into.”

Veronica Duron, an adviser at Olive-Harvey College, said they’ve had to lay off staff because of the funding cuts. “Most of the support staff was cut from the south campus, where most of the ESL classes are administered,” Duron said.

Currently, there are only about 4,000 ESL teachers for the entire state, many of whom only teach part time or are unpaid volunteers.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2005-2007 American Community Survey, more than 900,000 of Chicago’s population of 2.7 million people speak a language other than English. Almost half of these people fall into the category of those who speak English less than “very well.”

The latest headcount from 2008 by the Illinois Community College Board shows 95,307 students enrolled in the adult education programs in the City Colleges of Chicago. Of these students, 23,990 are in ESL classes. That’s only about 5 percent of the total number of people who are considered to have limited proficiency in English.

“The native population is growing older, which affects the state economy,” Tsao said. “Who will replace the aging workers? The state’s workers rely on immigrants. Immigrants need to know English—it’s critical, but the state system is not up to the job.”

“We need to take a look at if adult education belongs in the community college system or somewhere else,” Tsao added. “English education is a key investment that our state needs to make for our future.”

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