English as a Second Language program helps Bayonne immigrants find their voices

The Thursday evening English as a Second Language pre-intermediate class at St. Henry's

English as a Second Language (ESL) programs at Grace Lutheran Church and St. Henry’s Roman Catholic Church have played a vital role in integrating Bayonne’s immigrants and non-English speakers for nearly two decades.

The Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia have been providing ESL programs for adults at the two churches in Bayonne for more than 17 years.

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Sister Kay Coll has been the director of the ESL program at St. Henry’s School since its inception

“We set up the program, recognizing that the needs of immigrants weren’t being fully met in regard to learning the language and culture,” she told The Bayonne Community News.

The Sisters had originally opened a Welcome Center in Philadelphia to assist immigrants in learning the culture and language of their new country, so they could become more confident and self-sufficient.

“When immigrants come to this country, they feel like outsiders,” Coll said. “When they feel that they are welcomed and treated like full human beings, that is the most rewarding experience.”

The Sisters initially offered this assistance to any parish in Bayonne where needed. Pastor Joe Barbone of Assumption Church was happy to have an ESL program for his church’s growing Spanish population, and thus the program began in October 2003 with more than 90 students.

The following year, when the Bayonne Board of Ed rented Assumption classrooms, St. Henry’s School became the ESL program’s new home.

Since that time, hundreds have gone through the program.

“We call it a love experience,” Coll said. “We have been able to have those who come to us gain a sense of belonging, because that’s the most difficult thing for immigrants when they come to this country.”

St. Henry’s Roman Catholic Church

At St. Henry’s Church, the ESL program offers morning sessions that meet Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 10 a.m. to noon.

St. Henry’s also offers an evening program that meets every Thursday from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.

Julia Brannan-Rauch is the instructor of the evening program at St. Henry’s. Classes are held from September through April and are taught by volunteers.

“We teach immigrants with zero English capabilities, right on up to people trying to perfect their language skills so they can better communicate,” Brannan-Rauch said.

Learners pay $15 registration in September followed by another $5 registration in January. The learners must purchase their books, which average between $30 to $40 each.

“These individuals often come from cultures with strong family ties and community connections that they are looking to find when they get here,” Brannan-Rauch said.

“English is a difficult lnguage!” –Julia Brannan-Rauch

Because the classes are not intense, immersion-style courses, many learners have been coming to the sessions for a number of years, repeating levels and building on skills picked up year after year.

Learners are tested and placed into the appropriate level. Classes are provided at a Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced Intermediate level. Extra classes that bridge the gap between levels may be added.

The Sisters also coordinate efforts with the Grace Lutheran Church in Bayonne. Both programs are open to all residents.

Grace Lutheran Church

Grace Lutheran Church, at 836 Avenue C, offers an evening program for adults. Pastor Gary Grindeland is the instructor.

2020 marks the five-year anniversary of the program, which runs primarily in the evening, in hopes of attracting Bayonne residents unable to attend the St. Henry’s day program. The program helps with childcare.

The free program consists of two ten-week sessions, one in spring and in fall, meeting Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. The learner must purchase the book.

“The program is set up so that there are people from different countries sitting side by side learning English, even though they speak different languages,” Grindeland said.

These ESL learners benefit from two classes a week in the day program at St. Henry’s.

“We even have a meal together every Tuesday night where people will sit in different places every time to practice their English while they eat,” Grindeland  said.

An everyday event, like sharing a meal, becomes an opportunity to learn. On the last Tuesday of the program, Grace holds an all-nations food festival where everyone in the program brings a dish from their home countries.

Between the fall and spring sessions, the church runs a reading program for learners.

On Monday evenings, Grace Lutheran runs citizenship classes for immigrants in Bayonne.

Grindeland said that the program builds tolerance through a greater understanding of the English language.

Learning from students

Learners this year came from many countries, including Egypt, Vietnam, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador, Afghanistan, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela.

“It helps reach across barriers and build a better understanding of different cultures,” Brannan-Rauch said of the program at St. Henry’s.

The teachers often marvel that they learn far more from these people than the learners ever will learn from the teachers.

Learning to communicate in the supermarket, with a healthcare provider, with their children’s teachers and with their neighbors is a difficult process.

Said Brannan-Rauch: “When you encounter someone struggling to make themselves understood, patience and encouragement can go a long way to helping them build the confidence to continue their journey to fluency.”

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Dan Israel can be reached at disrael@hudsonreporter.com.