RIC partners with pastor on mission to build ESL center

RIC student teachers at St. Paul’s ESL Center: Kevin Gravier (top left), Roshni Darnal (bottom left), Yenifer Martinez (top right).

RIC student teachers at St. Paul’s ESL Center: Kevin Gravier (top left), Roshni Darnal (bottom left), Yenifer Martinez (top right).
St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church on Elmwood Avenue in Providence alternates as an ESL center for people whose first language is not English.

Leon Schultz ’96, pastor of St. Paul’s, is also adjunct professor of Spanish at RIC.

When he opened the center in 2010, he said, “The goal was not only to teach English, but to encourage adult learners to challenge the GED and earn a four-year degree at RIC.”

Schultz, a German-bred transplant from Minnesota, had never mixed with any culture other than German and Scandinavian when he arrived as the new pastor in 1988.

His new congregation at St. Paul’s was also German as well as its private school. Yet the beautiful building was situated in one of the most economically depressed areas of the state.

The neighborhood teemed with drugs, prostitution and other crime, he said. An armed guard watched the parishioner’s cars during Sunday service.

Leon Schultz, pastor of St. Paul’s church and adjunct professor of Spanish at RIC.
Reminiscent of the German Pied Piper of Hamelin, Schultz proposed ways of drawing in the youth off the street and into the church. It took many years for his proposals to take hold. Twenty-two years, in fact.

Today, two-thirds of St. Paul’s members are African immigrants from Liberia, Tanzania, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast, the other third is German, while the neighborhood has become home to Spanish-speaking Dominicans.

In order to draw in their Spanish-speaking neighbors, the congregation agreed to fund Schultz’s enrollment in RIC’s BA program in Spanish so that he could conduct services in Spanish. He also earned an MA in Spanish at URI.

In 2010 he proposed converting the basement of St. Paul’s – a dark bowling alley built in 1938 – into three ESL classrooms.

“The congregation was all for it,” he said. “Many of our Liberians had been helped through community service when they first arrived in America during the war in Liberia.”

To develop an ESL curriculum, Schultz solicited fellow RIC faculty member, Andrés Ramirez, director of RIC’s Intensive ESL Program for Adult Learners and assistant professor of RIC’s Teaching English as a Second Language program.

Andrés Ramirez, RIC assistant professor of teaching English as a second language.
Ramirez understood the need.

“On average, 200 non-native speakers are on ESL waiting lists in the state,” said Ramirez. “City budget cuts have prevented many non-native speakers from accessing English language classes.”

He contacted publishers for textbooks, while Schultz searched for teachers.

Olga Juzyn, chair of RIC’s modern languages department, came up with a ready source – RIC student teachers, concentrating in Spanish.

By interning at St. Paul’s, RIC students could earn three college credits, practice their Spanish, practice their teaching and perform a community service.

RIC’s Office of User Support Services donated five computers. Church members volunteered to assist with childcare, food preparation and other services.

In August 2010, the doors to the center were opened. Without flute, the modern-day Pied Piper, along with Ramirez, waited for the first students to arrive.

No one came.

Four months later, he tried again. This time seven students signed up. That number increased to 12. Classes were held two evenings a week, from 6 to 8 p.m. But Schultz wanted a larger following.

“It was suggested that Andrés and I go on a Spanish radio station to promote the center. By the time we left the station and got back to the church, we had received 10 phone calls. By the afternoon, we had 23 calls. By the end of the day, we had 37 calls. And just like that, overnight, we went from 12 students to 40, with a waiting list of 25.”

Kourtny DaRocha was the first RIC student teacher. After completing her internship, she returned to volunteer as the center’s ESL program coordinator.

Bill Oheklers, a retired RIC professor, volunteered to give private tutoring in English, while RIC students Kevin Gravier and Yenifer Martinez are leading group classes.

Martinez said she gets great satisfaction from seeing her students apply what they’ve learned. Born in the Dominican Republic, Martinez came to the United States in ninth grade unable to speak English. She was placed in the ESL program at Hope High School in Providence. At St. Paul’s, she said, she is teaching English and learning at the same time.

“The entire community feels amazingly empowered,” said Ramirez.

And other literacy agencies in the state are tapping RIC as a resource.

Ramirez was asked to upstart the ESL center at the Learning Community Charter School in Central Falls, which has been offering classes for adults since 2010.

Dorcas Place Adult and Family Learning Center has sent Ramirez a request for teachers.

And the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence wants to replicate St. Paul’s model at other churches.

Though Schultz never managed to gain Spanish-speaking parishioners from the Elmwood area and has never conducted a service in Spanish, he is leading them toward a better educational and economic future.

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