- Associated Press - Sunday, February 28, 2016

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - In the basement of Good News Bible Church last week, a group of students repeated the phrases “don’t turn left” and “turn right.”

Iowa City Press-Citizen (https://icp-c.com/1R4jY4b ) reports that the group was taking a free class on English language and life skills offered by the nonprofit Friendship Community Project in Iowa City. Eight adult students in a beginner class wrote sentences and repeated phrases related to driving and road signs.

The Friendship Community Project started offering the volunteer-led classes in September to help adults from outside the U.S. learn English and navigate changes that come with moving to a new country, such as getting health insurance or addressing traffic tickets, said Susan Prepejchal, one of the project’s teachers.

Prepejchal, a former English language teacher at Kirkwood Community College, said the project’s classes served more than 100 students last fall and winter and this year are serving about 60 students Monday and Wednesday mornings.

“We’re trying to be kind of full-service,” she said.

The project is offering classes at a time of high demand for English language services in the Iowa City area.

Kirkwood offers free, noncredit English classes for residents in the area who speak Spanish, French, Chinese and other languages. This year, 326 students have attended the free classes, 203 of whom attended for 12 hours or more, said Marcel Kielkucki, the college’s director of high school completion programs.

He said the number of students attending Kirkwood’s English language classes in Iowa City rose from 231 in the 2012-13 school year to 499 last school year. But he said enrollment in the free classes likely will drop this year because of changes at Kirkwood. He said the college recently changed requirements for students, including the number of classes a student must attend to stay enrolled.

Kielkucki said the new rules will help the college garner state and federal money - the program can leverage more money based on how many students advance by a level each year - and will help students benefit through consistent attendance.

He said Kirkwood is exploring ways to increase access to the classes by offering services more effectively.

“We’re trying to look at how do we most effectively utilize the space that we have and the opportunities that we have,” Kielkucki said.

Colleen Schmitt, Kirkwood’s English language program coordinator, said the college has a waiting list of more than 100 students wanting to take Kirkwood’s free classes in Iowa City. She said she refers people to Friendship Community Project when Kirkwood’s classes are full or when potential students cannot commit to attending classes regularly.

Schmitt said the project fills a need in the community by allowing people to access services right away.

“That’s a real relief to many people,” she said.

Prepejchal and Jane Olson, also a Friendship Community Project instructor, said the project’s classes are structured flexibly, which means students can start midsemester, and staff can accommodate students who must miss class to travel, go to work or take care of their families.

“We really wanted to be able to get people in right away,” Prepejchal said.

On Feb.15, students from Peru, Iran, Mexico, South Korea and other countries gathered for four classes at the church. Cedrick Buhendwa, 20, moved to the U.S. in July from the Democratic Republic of Congo to join his father in Iowa City.

Buhendwa, who provided comments through translator Nancy Keith, said he started taking the classes to get a leg up on a Kirkwood course he plans to take. He said he hopes to improve his language skills before taking another placement test for Kirkwood.

Buhendwa, who works night shifts at Wal-Mart stocking shelves, said the classes are helping him communicate at work. He said they also help him converse with English-speaking members of his church.

Olson, an English teacher of more than 20 years and a former Kirkwood instructor, said she loves teaching adults through Friendship Community Project. She said she uses humor to help students connect in class, noting that it’s key for them to get to know each other because they often speak more freely as a result.

“Once they are comfortable with each other, they are not afraid to speak. And when they start speaking, then I can start helping them,” Olson said.

She said the classes also provide a forum for people to learn about nonlanguage topics, such as the U.S. government and, recently, the Iowa caucuses. The flexible nature of the curriculum also means staff can offer help with individual students’ needs as they arise, Olson said.

Eunsim Oam, 42, came to the U.S. from Seoul, South Korea, about a year ago to be with her husband, a researcher at the University of Iowa. She said she likes Iowa City because it’s “peaceful and calm.”

Oam said her friends recommended the Friendship Community Project. She said she started the classes because she was having trouble talking with her daughters’ English-speaking friends.

Oam said she wants to gain reading and speaking skills, and said the classes are helping.

“I want to get along with American citizens,” Oam said.

Livia Centeno, 65, came with her husband to the U.S. five years ago from Caracas, Venezuela, to accompany their daughters, including one who lives in Iowa City.

Centeno, who also attends Kirkwood classes, said Friendship Community Project offers a relaxed learning environment, allowing her to visit Venezuela while staying enrolled. She said she enjoys the advanced class with Olson, noting that she came to the U.S. with no English-speaking skills. She said the classes help her participate in conversations, learn grammar and make friends.

“For me, this group is really nice,” Centeno said.

___

Information from: Iowa City Press-Citizen, https://www.press-citizen.com/


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