MANCHESTER, NH – For the next few days the Manchester Adult Learning Center will be functioning like a huge science fair, only the subject is world culture, and the participants are mostly ESL students, excited to share with their international classmates a little bit about their home countries.
The annual Culture Fair is a celebration of something perhaps best expressed in Latin, but which translates no matter which native language you speak: e pluribus unum, out of many, one.
The three-day fest culminates Thursday with a food festival for the 275 participants who represent at least 45 countries.
Students with varying levels of English proficiency come together several times a week, reminding one another to speak only in English, as they say immersion is the best way to learn.
Programs offered include Adult High School Diploma; Adult Basic Education; HiSET (High School Equivalency, formerly GED) preparation and testing; ESL (English as a Second Language); and an evening electrical and plumbing apprenticeship program.
The idea for the annual fair started small but has grown over the past 10 years, says Christine Powers, who is a supervisor of the Adult Learning Center, a program of the Manchester School District. It has been housed inside portable classrooms on the Manchester School of Technology campus. That changes in the fall due to expansion of MST to a four-year high school, which means the portables will be needed for high school students.
So far, no new location has been decided.
Students took a break from Tuesday’s festivities to discuss proposed changes to the program, many of them expressing worry about losing their sense of community if the move should include breaking up programs and housing them at different locations – or as one student said, “if it’s not broken, why fix it?”
Nestor Gonzalez, who was an electrical engineer in the Dominican Republic, says the morning classes work out well for him – he can come after dropping his kids off at school.
He says his story is not unique – an immigrant who comes to the United States to improve his life, but due to language barriers, needs to improve his mastery of the language. Gonzalez wants to be able to read and write well enough to enroll in college.
He believes students in the program could be a valuable resource to the community because many of them speak two languages or more, but so far, they are largely an untapped resource.
“This is a good platform for the city, as a way to improve the city,” Gonzalez said. “When the city wants to know what’s happening in the city, this should be the first place to consult, but maybe city officials don’t really know what happens here.”
Gonzalez also said at the heart of the MST program’s success is that those who run it truly care about the students.
“They will call you personally and make sure everything’s OK if they don’t see you here,” said Gonzalez. “They truly care. We’re like a family.”
Powers, along with Marsha Glance, who together have been job sharing the supervisory position, have both announced their retirement. That means the district will be hiring a new program supervisor.
Powers said that while the need to move has been understood by all for quite some time, it is the lingering uncertainty as they move into the summer – not knowing where the program will be housed or who will be running it – that concerns her.
“It’s really important, for students and teachers, to be in one place. We’ve had students move through four different classes, because they’re all right here, and we’ve also had students move into the HiSET program, because they’re already here. Teachers can easily discuss what materials are appropriate, because they’re right here,” says Powers.
And advanced students can mentor newer students, or come back as volunteers once they graduate, which enhances the program.
A proposal to house the program at West High School was rejected by the school board, said Powers, after some concerns were raised by board members about having adult students on site with high school students.
On Tuesday that concern was brought up by one of the students.
“We don’t mind being in the high school. Many of us here have sons and daughters in the high school. We are parents. We are not afraid of them – but maybe they are afraid of us?” she said, evoking some laughter from her fellow students.
Several of the students plan to attend the May 26 School Board Meeting to speak during public comment, said Powers.
“This is coming from them – when they heard about the school board wanting to divide the program, they decided they wanted to do something,” she said.
Students took turns Tuesday sharing why they favor keeping the program under one roof.
A student from the Dominican Republic said in the 1o months since she’s been taking classes she’s learned enough English to communicate with her son’s teachers.
Another student from China spoke about how the sense of community extends beyond ESL lessons, as many students carpool and network.
A student from South Sudan said being all together allows him to learn about other cultures.
“I did not have a lot of education in my country, and so for me, it is an opportunity to learn all about the countries and cultures where other students are coming from,” he said.
And a student from Iraq shared her own story, that before the ESL classes she didn’t like to leave her home.
“I was too shy to speak to anyone. If I saw someone I’d just want to busy myself so that I don’t have to speak with anyone. But when I started coming to school, I see more people like me who want to learn, and now I feel strong. I can go to an appointment or shopping or speak with anybody. Classes have given me more confidence,” she said.
School Board Member At-Large Kathy Staub stopped by the center last week to learn more in anticipation of the continued discussion over where to move the Adult Education program.
“I was amazed at the people in the class, there were several engineers, an architect, a woman with multiple PhDs – many highly educated students,” said Staub.
She said her sense is that the program needs to expand so that it’s accessible to everyone.
“There’s a whole spectrum of people in the city that need ESL services and basic education, we recognize it needs to be larger and more accessible, and not just to those who can drive there,” Staub said.
“Too often we have conversations about people but we don’t include them, so I’m really glad some of them are coming to tonight’s meeting,” Staub said. “I think it’s still a work in progress. [Assistant Superintendent] Dave Ryan is continuing to look at location options.”
Toward the end of the celebration, Gonzalez pulls up the words to “Home,” a familiar song by Philip Philips, on a large TV screen, transforming the classroom into an intimate karaoke club. The song is a favorite with this group, and celebrates the importance of friendship along the journey of life:
Hold on to me as we go
As we roll down this unfamiliar road
And although this wave is stringing us along
Just know you’re not alone
‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home…
Click the video below for more from Christine Powers, and some footage of the MALC students singing “Home.”