Adult education students rally for literacy

VSB ponders program closure

Jin Ru Wu may be improving her English through the Vancouver School Board, but she has trouble being heard.

Wu wanted to speak at the April 14 public consultation about the VSB’s preliminary budget after she learned the board proposes to close the literacy outreach program she attends at Nightingale elementary school.

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But the 73-year-old immigrant from China didn’t know not to put spaces in email addresses, so her messages bounced back. She attended the meeting, saw 22 speakers were registered and felt too intimidated to try to add her name.

“No one speak about the ESL,” she said. “I can’t speak. Even [if] I speak and no one understand what I say. My English is so poor. We very need to continue to study English.”

“The literacy load was too great,” said adult education literacy outreach instructor Rick Georg of Wu’s failed efforts.

Instead, his Nightingale class penned a letter to the Courier that said: “Studying basic literacy is necessary for us to become part of the community… Cutting our class puts a barrier in front of us.”

The VSB faces a budget shortfall of $8.52 million for 2015-2016 and expects another multimillion dollar shortfall for 2016-2017. The board proposes discontinuing the seven classes in its literacy outreach program that the district offers under adult education at six elementary schools to save $55,248 in 2015-2015 and $108,232 each year thereafter. Adult education falls outside the VSB’s core mandate of offering kindergarten to Grade 12 education, the budget reports state.

Rob Schindel, VSB director of instruction, says administrative oversight is required for each location, and the board has seen a steady decline of enrolling students, from the equivalent of 45 full-time students three years ago to 18. (One full-time equivalent student can equal eight learners.) If this program is eliminated, students could take literacy foundation courses at the Main Street adult education centre at Gladstone secondary, or at the South Hill learning centre.

Wu doesn’t believe studying at South Hill would work for her, noting her advanced age compared to the younger students there.

She previously studied English at a library, but that program was eliminated, too.

“Hopefully you can tell the public [to] continue this program for our poor people and old people,” she said, adding, “If I improve my English I don’t need people to help me.”

Min Jun Hao immigrated to Canada from China 20 years ago. She initially worked a labour job and then cared for her grandchildren. Now the 79-year-old has time to study.

“Now my grandchildren all speak English,” Hao said, noting they complain about her use of simple words and slower speech. She wants to improve. “I like my grandchildren,” she said.

Hao found classes at a community centre with an untrained volunteer teacher ineffective, but said her English improved over the past two years at Nightingale, which she says is conveniently situated to her home.

“Don’t close this class!” she said three times, shaking her fist.

Kent Leung said his boss cited his poor English skills when he laid him off from his job in a garment factory. Leung paid $400 for a three-month English-as-a-second-language night course at VCC when he worked. Now the 57-year-old is learning English at Nightingale, which is near his home, for a registration fee of $20, in the hopes that he’ll secure another job in a factory.

Georg, a certified teacher, has taught adult education through the VSB for nearly 20 years, 19 of them in the basement-level parents’ room at Nightingale. He also teaches at Renfrew, Laurier and Britannia. Many of his students at Nightingale are retirees, while most of his students at Renfrew and Laurier live nearby and have children in those schools. Many of the parents at Renfrew work outside the home.

Nightingale outreach class student Lan Huang said talking to her children’s teachers at parent-teacher night was something she wasn’t previously able to manage. Her lack of skill in English makes communicating with her Canadian-born child difficult, she said with tears.

Now that her children are older, she’d like to find a part-time job.

“But my English very poor,” she said.

Georg echoes Wu’s concern that studying at a learning centre might not work well for students who’ve been out of school for years. He’s seen incredible support among his class of 24 registrants at Nightingale.

But Georg doesn’t fault the VSB for cutting costs where it can.

“The VSB are in the same situation as the students at Nightingale,” Georg said. “They’re just victim of chronic underfunding of the public education system.”

The public can provide input on the VSB’s revised budget April 27, starting at 7 p.m. at 1580 West Broadway. The board will approve a provisional budget April 30.

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