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Language programs offer English, hope to newcomers
Some only for documented immigrants, others for anyone
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Tina Schnepper, center, lead ESL instructor, speaks with students Esther Holguin, left, and Sofia Ortiz, right, after a basic English class at the Lanier Adult Learning Center in Gainesville on Wednesday. - photo by David Barnes

For more information on Adult Learning Center programs call 770-531-3353; to learn more about the Title III Migrants and ESOL programs call 770-534-1080.

Amalia Solis has a motherly affection for those who come through the doors of the Adult Learning Center struggling to put a few English words together in a sentence.

As the program assistant at the center operated by Lanier Technical College, Solis helps to screen and enroll the young and old who venture in to learn English. It’s easy for Solis to smile and be kind because she remembers being in their shoes.

Some 20 years ago, Solis arrived from Mexico not knowing English. She was told about the learning center and walked through its doors determined to speak English. Solis said it was not easy juggling work and classes. That’s why she admires those who come to learn because she understands their struggles.

“Many of them work nights and come to class in the morning,” Solis said. “They want to learn because they want to grab better jobs. They start out working at the poultry plants, but as soon as they learn English they change jobs in a hurry.”

Tina Schnepper was one of the teachers at the center who taught English to Solis. Schnepper is still teaching newcomers. As the lead instructor at the Adult Learning Center, Schnepper marvels at the gritty determination of the people who come from other countries speaking only other languages or barely any English.

The vast majority of English learners are Hispanics, Schnepper said. However, when she handed out certificates to students who persevered through a basic conversation class, there were two young West African men, a young woman from the Congo and another woman from Pakistan.

More than 27 percent of Hall County residents are speakers of a non-English language, which is higher than the national average of 21 percent, according to the U.S. Census.

The most common language spoken in Hall County other than English is Spanish. There are more than 43,000 Spanish speakers in the county, or 23 percent of the total population, according to the census. 

Everyone who participates in the Adult Learning Center program, which is offered at no cost to the students, has to be documented, according to Schnepper. During registration, they must either show proof that they are a U.S. citizen, have a visa or employment card.

Schnepper said the program offers citizenship classes and helps some to get their general education diploma, or GED.

The Gainesville-Hall County Alliance for Literacy serves as the advisory board for the Adult Learning Center, which provides free educational programs to those 16 and older who have not graduated from high school, or whose native language is not English.  

Schnepper said she sees many students with little or no English start off working at the poultry plants, and then branch out to other jobs as their speaking skills improve.

“As their English increases, we see them going into different fields,” Schnepper said. “We have a lot of students working in manufacturing throughout our county. We have students in the restaurant business and the retail services too. Some go on to start their own businesses.”

Schnepper said she admires their fortitude.

“Most of our students work full-time jobs, come to school and are raising a family,” Schnepper said. “They have a lot on their plate, but they come in with such a great attitude. They are so kind and ready to learn.”

Maria Iniguez is familiar with the work that Schnepper and Solis do at the Adult Learning Center. She has helped individuals by referring them to the center because she too knows how difficult it is to be a newcomer in a country where you don’t speak the language.

“I started from the very bottom coming to the USA, learning English and then being a mother and trying to help my children at school,” said Iniguez, who is now the family service bilingual assistance coordinator in the Title II Migrant and ESOL programs at Hall County Schools.

Anna Sargent, the assistant director of the Title III programs that teaches English to school children who speak other languages, said classes are offered at no cost to the parents of these students. Aside from teaching parents conversational English at the basic, intermediate and advanced levels, Sargent said they get help from Iniguez on life skills such as preparing for teacher conferences, how to read report cards and staying on top of their children’s progress at school.

Unlike the Adult Learning Center, Sargent said parents of students in the program are offered the classes with no requirements or questions asked.

“The parents are so sweet and so appreciative that we offer these classes,” Sargent said. “A lot of times they arrive in taxis, or they come in carpools. They come because it’s that important to them.”

One of those parents, Miroslava Salazar, almost moved Sargent and Iniguez to tears when she valiantly stood up in front of a large group to read a letter she’d written in English during a  ceremony to recognize parents with certificates for completing their course.

Salazar said it was an emotional moment for her because her husband and three of her sisters were there to see her get her certificate.

“It was my way of showing them that we all want to get ahead,” Salazar said. “We’ve learned so much and it’s helped me with my daughters at school. The letter I read was just to thank them for the program.”

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