Eastern Iowa Community Colleges received a grant for $4,940 from the Mexican consulate for the English Language class they are coordinating at the Tyson Foods plant in Columbus Junction, Iowa. 

"The grant itself is designed to support persons of Mexican heritage and their English learning," said Sarah Rissler, the English Language Acquisition Coordinator for Eastern Iowa Community Colleges.

The money will go to fund English learning classes that are being run onsite at the Tyson Foods plant. 

"We have a partnership with Tyson's Foods and we are hoping to begin a partnership with West Liberty Foods," Rissler said. "They have a number of Mexican heritage folks who work at both locations, and we are hoping to offer English classes at their locations."

The inaugural class began in August and ended in October. According to Rissler, the program's end-of-program assessment revealed that participants experienced improvement in their English reading. 

"We had 31 people who ended up enrolled with us, and most of the folks that we worked with achieved at least one level gain. That is equivalent to progressing in reading one year's worth of schooling. We had a handful of folks who made two level gains."

"As to why we decided to invest in the ESL program on site, I would suggest it is part of our retention effort to retain our hard-working team members who may have potential for growth but (be) limited by language and communication," said Joseph Blay of Tyson. "If  we are able to invest in their education and communication skills, it is (more) likely they (will) stay and work with us."

These classes met four days a week for two hours a day.

"It's geared for the demands of the job," Rissler said. "For example, at Tyson's they asked we work on particular terminology to help them be successful in the workplace. They wanted to focus on safety terminology: how far to stand from someone, how to use different machines, and what different protections are called."

Rissler explained that the class has to be particularly focused on the reading of signs. She said important signs can be ignored, if the student has not had much exposure to them.

"For a person without much background in education, they may not understand that a picture that they see is actually a sign that carries meaning," Rissler said. "It's called pre-literacy. For folks that do not understand what a sign means, they could be in danger of hurting themselves. We want them to understand that the signs they are encountering everyday at work."

The example she points to, is the exit sign. While it literally uses the word 'exit,' the implicit message is to mark a doorway as an exit. In cases of emergency, knowing the signs' meaning can be a matter of life and death.

Class begins right after work. Students clock out and walk to the classroom. There is a boardroom-style table with chairs all around it and a white board. When everyone arrives, class begins.

"We find that if a person is going directly from work and is staying at work to do their learning experience, they are more inclined to complete the program because you don't have time to go home, take a shower, kind of talk yourself out of it because you are already right there," Rissler said.

For Rissler, it is important that language learning resources are offered to students through the K-12 system and their parents. 

"What we are trying to do for the adult population, is give them the skills they will need to communicate or survive — and we do hope it's more than survive — but the area is predominantly English speaking," Rissler said. "We want to allow people to learn English when they are ready to do so."

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Reporter