Gilson Batista: Heading for a degree.
They are Syrian immigrants and Bhutanese refugees. Spouses of visiting professors from Pakistan and au pairs from Ecuador. Studious mothers of 12 from Somalia whose turn it is, finally, to attend class.
Some, highly educated in their home country, arrive with advanced degrees. Others have never set foot inside a school and struggle to read and write in their native language.
Step into an English as a Second Language classroom at Madison College's downtown campus, and you'll find learners from 10 or 15 countries, and as many stations in life, practicing together.
"The clock is on the wall." "Epiphane is Akugbe's brother." Or in higher levels, "Had I known you like reggae, I would have invited you."
One of these students is Gilson Batista, who in just over a year has progressed from ESL level 1 to 5 (out of 6). Batista is here thanks to his wife, Sara, who found out about Madison College's tuition-free, non-credit ESL courses and suggested he attend.
The two met in Batista's hometown of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, four years ago. A longtime Madison resident, Sara was there studying Capoeira and improving her Portuguese. He had just begun studying philosophy at universidade and was working as a book binder and Capoeira teacher.
After marrying, the young couple settled in Madison. It was Batista's first time in the U.S. He spoke a little English and Spanish, having taken several semesters of each in middle and high school, but not enough to resume life where he had left off.
Madison College's School of Academic Advancement, where a third of the course offerings are ESL classes (others cater to GED/HSED students), is a major resource for new residents like Batista.
Another is the Literacy Network of Dane County, which provides small-group and one-on-one support to adult learners working toward their literacy goals.
For some, the goal is understanding their child's teacher or pediatrician. Others want to find work to feed their families. Many just want to shake the paralyzing feeling of isolation and be a part of a community again. And then there are learners like Batista, who long to go back to school and earn a degree.
A partnership arose between the two agencies in 2011. In the pilot program, Literacy Network placed a tutor in the ESL classes of two Madison College instructors, Judy Emmrich and Ryan Roling.
The idea was for the classroom tutors, or CRTs as they are known, to play the role of teacher's aide, giving learners the kind of individualized attention not usually available in most technical college settings. They might lead half the class in a speaking exercise, float the room to field questions, or give feedback to each student on completed homework.
Emmrich and Roling became strong advocates for the Classroom Tutor Program, and it quickly expanded. In its second year, 50 volunteers served 911 hours.
Emmrich, a teacher here for 12 years, praises the individual attention that students gain. "The tutoring has increased the retention in my classes and has helped to strengthen the strong sense of community." Further, she notes, the CRTs "bring many rich and varied experiences into the room."
Last year, 27 tutors from Literacy Network served 1,112 hours in Madison College's ESL classes. Many are UW-Madison students, who find they get as much out of the experience by learning about other cultures and developing skills for their future.
Amy Krill, an AmeriCorps member and former classroom tutor who works with both agencies, manages the program. Literacy Network supports her in tutor recruitment, training and coordination. Both agencies provide office space, phones and supplies.
While Madison College would like to see more ESL students advance into credit courses, national statistics show the odds are against them. According to the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education, only about 10% of non-credit ESL students make the transition to credit ESL and even fewer continue on to vocational or academic programs.
But to gauge the success of an ESL program by looking solely at college engagement would be a mistake, says Chris Vandall, dean of the School of Academic Advancement.
"You have to look at the goal of the student," he says. It may not be to get into an occupational program or earn a degree. Even if it were, for many that's impossible financially.
"We lose a lot of our students because they have to go and get a job just to pay the bills," says Vandall.
But then there are more resource-rich students like Batista, who have a fighting chance of college success. Now that he is in ESL 5, Batista is eligible to take the COMPASS, the college entrance exam used by Madison College to test readiness.
Eventually, he'd like to take credit courses through Madison College, then transfer to a UW-Madison humanities program. He's nothing if not motivated, taking summer courses, showing up before class for help and practicing conversation in the downtown campus' Learning Center. Batista takes basic reading, writing and math classes here too, also offered tuition-free.
"You have to work hard," he says, but if you do, "you get what you want to get."
Or, as an adage often recited in language classes goes, "One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way."