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Lancaster-Lebanon IU13 gets funding boost for their adult ESL program

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
Liliya, left, and Eva Chekh work on a lesson as Laura Stammberger, a volunteer English teacher, teaches English to Ukrainian refugees at Bethany Slavic Church in Ephrata on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

 Jeremy Long / WITF

Liliya, left, and Eva Chekh work on a lesson as Laura Stammberger, a volunteer English teacher, teaches English to Ukrainian refugees at Bethany Slavic Church in Ephrata on Tuesday, July 19, 2022.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education awarded $2.2 million in federal funds to five organizations that run adult education programs for English language learners.

Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, which serves hundreds of English language learners in central Pennsylvania, received $999,000, which is about $150,000 more than in previous years.

The Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education grant, allows education agencies to provide courses that merge civics education, workforce training and English language skills. Aside from helping students build English language proficiency, the program is aimed at preparing and placing people in high-demand jobs.

Lancaster-Lebanon serves 300 students each year through the grant. Thirty are part of their Integrated English Training program, in which an ESL teacher co-teaches with an instructor specialized in a specific industry or skill. The idea is to help people get training and certification faster, said Tim Shenk, the IU13’s community education program director.

“Because in the traditional model, language learners need to work their way up to the highest levels of ESL before they can take a training,” Shenk said. “With this model, even if their language skills aren’t up to 100%, they can still take the training because they’re going to get language support in the classroom.”

There is an increasing need for these programs in both counties, Shenk said. In the grant proposal, the program’s staff noted the high number of language learners in the area, and their levels of education. Most are Spanish-speakers, but the program also serves speakers of  languages such as Arabic, Haitian Creole, Dari and Pashto.

According to the National Center for Education statistics, 5% of Lancaster County’s population is foreign-born, and 14% of the population, which may or may not be foreign-born, cannot speak English well or at all. In Lebanon County, 4% of the population is foreign-born and 19% has not mastered English.

“The demand for services far exceeds the amount of funding that is available to provide these services, so we’re extremely grateful for this grant. It certainly helps,” Shenk said. 

The program is available to adult English language learners of all levels, including people who have advanced degrees and had careers before coming to the United States. The organization   helps them get the credentialing needed to work in the field of their expertise.

IU13 has a teacher’s assistant program that can help people who have teaching degrees from their native countries get jobs in the education field.  

IU13 has staff to work with students who want to have their degrees recognized in the United States, but there are certain occupations that require starting from scratch again,  Shenk said.

For example, people who were doctors in their previous countries are required to go through residency and take exams in English in order to get a degree that is valid in the United States. That is why many former doctors often opt for other jobs in the medical field, like nursing or phlebotomy. 

But a lot of times, people change careers or go into low-wage jobs to make ends meet.

“There are lots and lots of people in this situation, where they were professionals in their home country, and now they’re packing boxes and working in an assembly line, and they are working hard to try and reclaim their careers,” Shenk said.

In Pennsylvania, 20% of people born in other countries have graduate degrees, compared to 12% of people born in the United States, according to an analysis by the American Immigration Council. But immigrants are also more likely to have less than a high school education. Almost 19% do not have a high school degree, compared to 8% of people born in the U.S.

A study by the Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce found that foreign-born immigrants in the county are more likely to be in young working ages between 25 and 44.

“There is this highly skilled group of people out there that might just need a little bit of help to be successful,” said Cheryl Hiester, executive director of the Lancaster Literacy Council. “They might need a little bit of help with what the job looks like in this country.”

The state’s occupational licensure policy is another barrier for immigrants, refugees, and asylees seeking to make use of the educational and professional experience they attained in their home countries.

A 2021 survey from the Pennsylvania Department of State found that the most common barrier for immigrants applying for occupational licenses is the “confusing” application process and poor user-friendliness of the application website. Most applicants were denied because they used incorrect forms or their degrees weren’t accepted. Applicants noted another problem: They couldn’t take the licensure test in their native language or have an interpreter assist them during the test.

There have been some recent legislative efforts to allow immigrants to access certain careers, like teaching.

In late June, the Pennsylvania State House passed a bill that would allow non-citizens with a valid immigrant visa, work visa or employment authorization to work in Pennsylvania schools.  The measure now goes to the Senate, which is considering its own version of the bill. 

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