Community Voices: Options to improve English can be free to low cost

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I’m a girlie Southern girl. I seldom leave the house without mascara, and my monthly splurge is a regular manicure. Sandy, my manicurist, is a Vietnam native, wife and mother holding down a 40-hour-week job.

Sandy has been trying to improve her language skills before taking the TOEFLE college entrance exam. The TOEFLE helps measure a student’s ability to use and understand English at the university level. It evaluates how well a student combines listening, reading, speaking and writing skills to perform academic tasks.

Sandy recently paid $1,600 for an eight-week course meant to prepare her for the exam. The course is more advanced than your typical English as a Second Language class, yet Sandy believes she will need to retake the course before applying to college.

With the metro area home to so many immigrants, I did a little research into lower cost options for those wanting to improve their English skills. Turns out that there are quite a few.

Literacy Gwinnett, a program of the non-profit Gwinnett Coalition for Health and Human Services, provides a list of ESL providers. Many, like those offered through local churches, are free.

But the need for instruction at different levels is key to academic and professional success. Our widely-diverse population arrives with different English skill sets, said Ellen Gerstein, the coalition’s executive director. “Yet these families all have the same aspirations for their children — to attend college and become financially independent.”

Gwinnett School Board of Education Member Louise Radloff is equally passionate about this topic. She helped found Interlocking Communities, which partners with Gwinnett County Public Schools to help students and parents obtain the knowledge and skills needed to continue their educations at the post-secondary level and/or enter the workplace. They offer free weekly English Language Learner classes focusing on classroom skills and provide fourth and fifth graders a free Academic Assist program to help students achieve or maintain grade-level status.

If these classes don’t meet a student’s needs, Gwinnett Technical College also provides free ESL classes at all levels. Gwinnett Tech’s eight-week TOEFEL classes are remarkably less expensive from $255 to $495. There is no registration or testing fee and only government-funded, free classes require documentation.

My manicurist and I have a lot to talk about next week. I hope this tip is going to save her money while helping her move toward her dream of a college education.