Twice a year, when hundreds of people who want to learn English crowd into a middle school cafeteria in Framingham, many of them end up in a purgatory usually reserved for high school seniors: the waiting list.
Framingham Adult ESL Plus, the city’s largest program for teaching English as a second language, can usually offer spots to a fraction of the would-be students who apply. The competition became so intense that a few years ago, the program resorted to a lottery to award seats.
The shortage of classes for immigrants who want to learn English is not unique to Framingham, where 17 percent of the population has limited English skills, leaving the town tied with Boston for the sixth largest percentage in the metropolitan area.
Just 5 percent of immigrants with limited English proficiency in the region are enrolled in programs supported by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, according to a report by the Boston Foundation last year.
The report concluded that more than 10,000 people were on waiting lists for classes, for as long as two years. Others who could benefit from the classes may not know about them or weren’t applying, according to the report. The need for classes has grown as the number of immigrants in Greater Boston has increased - with about 6,000 arriving each year, according to the Boston Foundation.
In Framingham, the waiting lists have been so long - now about 450, compared with seats for 650 students - that in recent years, the program’s administrators created a new policy. Any applicant who has been denied a class spot for five semesters would automatically get in the following semester.
“We figure that’s quite a commitment,’’ said Christine Tibor, director of Framingham Adult ESL Plus, noting the 2 1/2-year wait. “You could get an associate’s degree in that time.’’
In other communities, especially those with larger numbers of immigrants with limited English skills, the demand is also great. Some students wait three years to get a spot in English classes at the Waltham Power Program, said director Kathleen Chlapowski. About 200 students are currently enrolled, and another 200 are waiting, she said.
The benefits of the English classes are clear to people who have taken them.
Tran Finneran moved to Framingham from her native Vietnam about 2 1/2 years ago when she married a US citizen. When her older son started school, she was asked to join a school-affiliated English class so she could support his learning. When the program chose students to continue at Framingham Adult ESL Plus, she was on the list.
“For me, English is very important,’’ Finneran said. “Especially if I want to go to college, I need more. My dream is to get to college.’’
The program also helped her adjust to American life in other ways. Through the program, she learned last year that Macy’s was hiring sales clerks for the holiday season. Finneran got hired; she still works part time for the store.
“I got a job, so now I have money to go to driving school,’’ said Finneran, whose husband works in an auto repair shop. “You really need a driver’s license in this country.’’
Her counselor at the Framingham program also helped Finneran apply for a scholarship for a nursing course at the Joseph P. Keefe Technical School. A few weeks ago, she learned she received a grant that would fully cover the cost of the course.
“Since I got to this school, I got all the chances to change my life, my family,’’ she said.
Supporters of ESL programs say the classes benefit not only immigrants and their families, but the rest of the state as well. Businesses benefit from employees who speak English, and some offer their own English classes to their workers.
Limited English is a major obstacle to parents becoming involved in their children’s education, according to the nonprofit English for New Bostonians. And immigrants who speak English fluently earn about $24,000 more each year than immigrants who do not speak English well, the Boston Foundation’s report said.
“English is the verbal currency,’’ said Martin Estner, a Newton lawyer and chairman of the MetroWest ESL Fund. “People who can’t speak English have a very difficult time economically and socially in this country.’’
The MetroWest fund was created in 1999 to raise money for Framingham’s ESL program. Each year, the fund covers the cost of six classes.
Last fall, the fund was one of 18 programs in the state that received an award from Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray and the English Works campaign for helping workers learn English.
Claudia Calderon, who is from Mexico, graduated from the highest level of English classes in the program, and used her new language skills to leave her manufacturing job and work instead as a secretary in the Framingham school district. The program has 10 levels, and students are considered proficient in English when they finish.
Calderon previously worked in the Framingham Adult ESL office, and saw firsthand the dismay of those who couldn’t get into one of the program’s classes.
“It was people coming in saying they had been going five times or three times, and they are really frustrated because they didn’t get a place in class,’’ she said.
Now some students who don’t win a spot in one of the classes are chosen, also by lottery, to participate in a prep class taught by volunteers once a week. The classes help prepare students for the regular English classes, which meet six hours a week.
The Framingham program, like all programs funded by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is not allowed to charge students for taking the class. The state covers about two-thirds of the cost of the program, Tibor said; fund-raising, including some by students, and other grants cover the rest.
Maria Barbalho and her husband moved from Brazil to Framingham about 20 years ago, but their English developed slowly. The large Brazilian community in their new hometown meant they often spoke their native language.
“If you speak more Portuguese, you never learn English,’’ she said.
And while adults struggle to learn English, the children tend to learn it more easily.
Barbalho and her husband started taking classes at Framingham Adult ESL a few years ago. Their son, a college sophomore, speaks English fluently.
So, too, does Finneran’s son, who is 6. Although Finneran Skypes with her family in Vietnam every day, her son speaks only a little Vietnamese. “Now my son, he corrects my pronunciation,” Finneran said. “That’s why [I’d] better go to English school.’’