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Back to school in July for these adult English learners

Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

It might still be more than a month away for kids, but some adults went back to school this week. It was the start of the Buffalo Public Schools’ summer semester of English classes for individuals aged 21 and older.

Somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people study English through the district’s adult education division every year, and they come from all over the world.

“Congo, we have Somalia, we have Eritrea, Pakistan, Burma or Myanmar, Nepal, Sudan, and that’s just right now,” said ESL teacher Courtney McCann, describing her introductory English class.

ESL stands for “English as a Second Language,” but the term ENL (meaning “English as a New Language”) is also commonly used throughout the school system. It’s a more appropriate term because many English Language Learners (ELLs) already speak multiple languages—just not English.

“We’ve had students who have started out speaking no English and have ended up starting their own businesses,” said Doreen Regan, ESL coordinator for the Buffalo Public Schools Adult Education Division.

“A lot of them come with background skills that they can transfer over when they get here. The problem is their limited language proficiency in English.”

Regan said the division’s main mission is to help immigrants and refugees—or whoever needs instruction—learn enough English to secure employment. The classes are free for all students, and the district doesn’t turn anyone away.

But it’s not easy to learn a new language as an adult.

“Children learn much more quickly,” Regan said. “Their brains are just wired to learn language at a much younger age, so often you’ll see parents who may have been here for a few years and they’re still struggling with the language [yet] their children are now totally proficient in English.”

For some older students, English classes in Buffalo can also be their first experience with formal education.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Courtney McCann, center, uses physical activities to help her adult students learn.

McCann said many of her students never went to school or learned to read and write in their native language, so it can be intimidating to come into her classroom. In order to make sure they succeed, she and other teachers use kinesthetic learning, which involves a lot of physical movement and activities.

The adult English classes are open enrollment, so students get moved up to the next level as they learn. The district currently offers classes at eight different locations, with two or three levels at each site.

McCann said students can stay with her in the lowest level class for two months or two years.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News
Maya, from Nepal, left, and Kararo, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are adult English learners in McCann's class.

On the morning WBFO visited—the first day of the summer session—students greeted each other and McCann warmly. Maya, from Nepal, and Kararo, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, sat next to each other. Zeeshan, from Pakistan, apologized for missing the last class because of a dentist appointment.

“We’re all adults here and everyone is fine. It goes really, really well,” said McCann. “I think it’s a really unique and beautiful experience to be here every day to see how the world is coming together in my classroom.”

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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