Upon his arrival in Brockton from Haiti last year, McGinley Paul wasted no time carving his own path to a better future.
He completed a high school equivalency program and immediately began the process of becoming a permanent resident, which will make him eligible to receive financial aid so he can attend college.
Not one to sit idly by during the lengthy visa process, Paul decided he would spend part of his days taking free English classes locally along with his mother and younger sister. It was at that juncture, however, that Paul’s fast-tracked plans nearly derailed.
“Some schools said we had to wait at least two years,” said the 21-year-old. “It was really a long time.”
Paul’s experience is hardly unusual. Statewide, only a fraction of adults looking to take English language classes are able to do so each year, with demand far outweighing supply.
A recent study by the quasi-public Commonwealth Corporation found that just 5 percent of approximately 237,000 immigrants with limited English language skills in Greater Boston were being served by the various programs supported by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
For the most part, community adult education programs funded by the state education department are offered free of charge and therefore attract the largest number of applicants, resulting in waiting lists that can be as long as two years. Even fee-based classes, which can be financially inaccessible for many immigrants and have fewer participants, have waiting lists that can run up to a year, said Eva Malone, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition .
As of last December, the number of people waiting to enroll in adult basic education classes statewide was 18,000, and of those, more than 13,000 were waiting specifically for English language classes, she said. Approximately 25,000 people enroll annually in adult basic education classes.
“The need continues to grow, particularly among immigrants from Asia and Latin America,” Malone said. “The need is much higher than the resources available, so 13,000 people have to wait. The waiting list has been stuck at this level for several years.”
State support for adult basic education services, currently at $30.2 million, has been level-funded for several years, leaving agencies to compete for private dollars and grants in order to expand services. Programs in gateway cities like Brockton and Quincy will often be disqualified from private funds because they’re not in Boston, according to local organizers involved in fund-raising.
“Some of the challenges are that a lot of funders still haven’t come to terms with gateway cities that have these immigrant populations,” said John Brothers, executive director at Quincy Asian Resources Inc. , which has a two-year waiting list of about 200 people for its fee-based morning classes and free evening courses.
The majority of the agency’s students are those who speak Chinese and come from China, Hong Kong, and Vietnam, but they have also seen an increase in demand for English classes from people who speak Arabic, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, and Spanish, Brothers said.
Moises M. Rodrigues, a Brockton city councilor and interim executive director at the Cape Verdean Association of Brockton , said he recently applied for approximately $25,000 from the state to expand English classes, but was denied. The association has an 80-person waiting list for English classes.
“There’s some serious gaps,” Rodrigues said of funding distribution to communities outside of Boston. “How can we help our situation out?”
In Brockton, which has an established Cape Verdean population and a growing community of Haitians and other new immigrant groups, organizations struggle to keep up with the demand for English classes. Three Brockton agencies running programs funded by the state have a combined waiting list of 2,350 people trying to enroll in adult basic education and English language classes, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Waiting two years for English classes, “that’s not good enough,” said Mayor Bill Carpenter. Spurred by the demand in his community, Carpenter recently made an eight-class English course focused on job and career skills available to the public via Brockton Community Access television and on the city’s YouTube channel .
“For a gateway city like Brockton, it’s us thinking out of the box a little bit, and it helps the city at large,” Carpenter said. “We have a rapidly expanding population when most cities and towns in the Commonwealth are flat or declining, and most of our growth is immigrant populations. We’re trying to turn the challenge into an opportunity.”
Tired of seeing disappointment and despair in people’s faces when told they would have to wait a year or two, or maybe three, for a class, Ruth O’Brien-Denly, a career and education advisor at Training Resources of America Inc. in Brockton , decided she’d had enough. The agency has a waiting list of 308 people for its free English courses.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t look at people and say that,” O’Brien-Denly said. “It’s very disheartening when they look at you and cry. It happens a lot. . . . You’re dashing their hopes.”
In February 2009, along with a group of educators, O’Brien-Denly launched Connecting Through Community, a wholly volunteer effort offering free English classes every Saturday morning at the Brockton Public Library. It didn’t take long for word of mouth to spread, and today they teach about 70 to 80 people a year, from those with little literacy skills to professionals who are highly educated in their own countries, O’Brien-Denly said.
“This is simply a wait-list program where I insist upon not letting these people fall through the cracks, or not have at least enough basic English to be able to navigate their way around the city of Brockton and learn how to get on the bus,” she said.
Among those is Paul, the newly arrived Haitian immigrant . “I found the Saturday morning English program, I went there, and I can tell you it really helped me,” said Paul, who was inspired to study to be a doctor after witnessing the devastation caused by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in 2010 in Haiti. “My mom, my sister, and I go to the Saturday morning classes. When I first came here, I had to translate all the time from French to English, but after taking many courses — and Ruth, she really helped me taking English — and now I can say I’m much improved.”
Organizers urge anyone looking to enroll in an English class not to be discouraged by the long waiting lists, and to sign up with several agencies to improve their chances of getting in sooner. The state also runs an adult literacy hotline, 1-800-447-8844, through which people can find local courses, said Barbora Hazukova of Training Resources of America in Brockton.
“The faster they connect with us and the faster they are placed on a wait list, the fastest they’ll get to a class,” she said. “It may be a year, but the process has begun.”