Online ESOL Instruction Expands Reach of Spanish Catholic Center and Attracts New Students

Guest Post by Spanish Catholic Center

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington (Catholic Charities DC) serves anyone in need, regardless of age, ability, race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. Their mission is to promote the basic human rights, dignity and empowerment of all people. Guided by this mandate to serve all those who come to them for help, their approach in all of their programming is one of respect and empathy for all of their clients. During their last fiscal year, the agency provided critical social services to more than 192,000 under resourced individuals in Washington DC and the five surrounding Maryland counties.

Catholic Charities DC’s Spanish Catholic Center (SCC) has more than 50 years of experience in supporting the Latino and immigrant communities that call the DC metropolitan area home. SCC has become a critical lifeline for this underserved population by providing high-quality, culturally appropriate social and human services. Within each SCC program, staff work individually with clients to create unique service plans that address their interconnected needs while respecting the client’s right to self-determination. SCC takes a relational, culturally sensitive, and strengths-based approach, working collaboratively and compassionately with clients to identify their personal goals and address their barriers to self-sufficiency. Most SCC staff are bilingual and bicultural, and many are themselves immigrants from the home countries of the people served.

Since 1993, Catholic Charities DC’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program has been one of the leading service providers for limited-English proficient individuals in Montgomery County. Their ESOL courses, normally taught in-person at the SCC’s facility in Gaithersburg, provide educational resources that allow non-native English speakers to learn vital life and work skills. Prior to the COVID-19 health crisis, and with support from the Crimsonbridge Foundation, the SCC ESOL program had launched an innovative hybrid class model for high level ESOL students, with one class per week taught using Google classroom and the remaining instruction taught in-person in the physical classroom. All online work was facilitated and supervised by an instructor, and content was reviewed during the in-person classes.

Due to this successful online/in-class model, SCC was able to quickly and seamlessly transition all of their instruction to an online format at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to ensure the safety of  participants and staff while continuing to provide critical English language instruction to adult learners. Catholic Charities DC’s ESOL program was the first such program in the community to execute online instruction in response to the stay at home orders. Given their leadership in this space, other ESOL providers across the region sought guidance from SCC staff to provide online instruction solutions and strategies. Thus, SCC was able to help other community organizations quickly and efficiently transition their ESOL courses to online platforms.

“Virtual learning has its own learning curve,” said Laura Irwin, Catholic Charities DC’s ESOL Program Supervisor. “From having to learn the platform, to finding a space conducive for learning and teaching, both instructors and learners have had to adapt to this new model.”

As a result, SCC ESOL staff have become a valuable resource to many other organizations challenged with maintaining uninterrupted language instruction during the COVID-19 crisis. Their investment in digital equipment, which was made possible through the support of the Crimsonbridge Foundation, was critical to their transition to online learning. This technology allows them to provide students with comprehensive guided instruction and help other community organizations effectively serve their ESOL learners as well.

“We receive a lot of support from Catholic Charities DC,” one recent ESOL student said. “Of course, we’re supported by our teachers and our classmates, but we also get other assistance. With English classes, we learn a lot and we receive other services too.”

Moving their ESOL program to online-only instruction has also yielded benefits for the program’s sustainability into the future. Traditionally, SCC students have come from the area surrounding the SCC facility in Gaithersburg, where ESOL classes are held. However, given that students are no longer required to travel for in-person class sessions, SCC has been able to expand their footprint outside of this area to the larger Montgomery County community. This has allowed the program to increase the number of students it can accommodate at once. By reaching a greater number of learners, including those who normally would be unable to travel to an in-person class, they have been able to increase the impact of the support received from funders such as the Crimsonbridge Foundation and maintain a larger student base, ensuring the long-term stability of the program. To continue building upon this, the program piloted a virtual instruction language course this summer that it plans to continue even when classes eventually resume in-person instruction.

While most of their ESOL students emigrated from Spanish-speaking nations, others represent countries as diverse as Sudan, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Togo, and the Ivory Coast. Using the comprehensive Step Forward curriculum from the Oxford University Press, students learn the grammar and vocabulary they will regularly use in daily conversations at home and in the workplace. Students practice what they learn through simulated conversations, preparing them for a variety of important real-life situations.

“The greatest success,” Irwin said, “is that with the new learning model, they have learned how to participate in virtual job interviews.”

Catholic Charities DC is extremely grateful for their partnership with the Crimsonbridge Foundation and its support of their ESOL program. As this unprecedented health crisis continues, a sense of hope is essential. And hope and support are exactly what the ESOL students find in their virtual classrooms with Catholic Charities DC.