Volunteers with SVCF-supported ESL tutoring program help propel adult immigrants' success

More than one third of the 2.5 million residents of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are immigrants. Almost two thirds of those younger than 18 are children of immigrants. Our region’s continued prosperity and quality of life depend on our ability to create communities that recognize immigrants as assets and that honor shared values of family, hard work and opportunity for all.

Over the past 10 years, SVCF has made strategic investments in programs to help strengthen the local infrastructure of affordable, reliable legal services for immigrants. We have invested in programs that provide Vocational English and English as a Second Language courses to ensure greater economic advancement by immigrants, and that encourage coordination among community colleges, adult education schools and community-based organizations. 

One such English program supported by SVCF is Sequoia Adult School Scholars (SASS). This program aims to empower adult immigrants who work minimum wage jobs by providing them with financial support, tutoring and other assistance so they can continue their education, get higher paying jobs and serve as role models and advocates for their children.

Last month, the SASS program hosted close to 40 volunteer tutors who gathered to learn best practices for helping adult ESL students master the intricacies of the English language. SASS founder and executive director Elizabeth Weal shares this about her program and the February 11 gathering:

When SASS began in 2010, we were supporting a total of three students. Last year SASS supported 238, the majority of whom take ESL classes at Cañada College. SASS initially provided students with financial support in the form of scholarships that paid for students’ 

college textbooks, bus passes and parking passes. But after a few years it became apparent that, despite SASS’s financial assistance, many students were leaving college because they lacked the academic support they needed to succeed.  

The SASS tutoring program, whose coordination is funded in part by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, was created to fill that gap. SASS tutors meet weekly with their student at a time––often on weekends or in the evening––and location––often at a public library or coffee shop––that best fits students’ schedules. (While Cañada offers extensive academic support, many SASS students work full time and also care for their children and, as a result, are unable to stay on campus to take advantage of on-campus programs).

Cañada offers students many career options that lead to certificates in areas such as medical assisting, bookkeeping, Web design, and early childhood education. But before a student can start taking classes towards these certificates, they must have achieved a fairly high level of English proficiency. We created the SASS tutoring program to maximize the likelihood that our students will complete advanced ESL classes. For some students, completing these classes will enable them to work towards vocational certificates or even an Associate degree. For others it will give them the knowledge of speaking grammatically correct English that they need to move up in their jobs, from, say, a busser to a waiter at an upscale restaurant. For still others, it will mean that they have the confidence to help their kids with their homework and speak with their kids’ teachers.

While SASS tutors are a highly educated lot, coming from professions such as medicine, law, high tech, business and engineering, most have had no training in how best to teach second language learners––particularly those with limited education in their own countries––how best to craft an essay, analyze complex texts, or master any of the other skills that are part of the pre-college ESL curriculum. 

SASS tutor and Facebook employee Eva Gantz told me this after the February 11 session: "I've always been passionate about teaching and helping other people with their writing, but until this training session I didn't know much about the 'how.' In just a few hours, the presenters filled up our toolkits with strategies, tips and resources. I'm so grateful for the resources that SASS provides to myself and the many other tutors. I can't wait to try out what I learned with my student's next essay."

The training on February 11 was delivered by Rebekah Taveau and Jeanne Gross, two ESL professors at Cañada College. The training was held at Sequoia Adult School, the place where SASS was launched. Both Cañada’s ESL Department and Sequoia Adult School receive funding from SVCF to support students transitioning from adult school to community college.

Weal told SVCF that SASS is a bridge that greatly increases the likelihood that students’ transition from Sequoia Adult School to Cañada College will be a success. "By supporting all three of these organizations, SVCF demonstrates that it understands that successful collaboration is key to breaking down the many barriers that prevent adult immigrants from moving up the ladder,” she said.

Read more about the impact SVCF has had with its immigration grantmaking strategy