Wallace State: ‘ESL classes growing by leaps and bounds’

ESL instructor John Barnett, left, chats with students attending a Tuesday Night Transformation event at the Wallace State Community College Oneonta Academic Center, while instructor David Higginbotham and Adult Education Director Patti Wilkins look on. (Wallace State)

HANCEVILLE, Ala. –  Over the last three years, attendance for English as a Second Language (ESL) classes offered at the Wallace State Community College Oneonta Academic Center has more than quadrupled. ESL instructor John Barnett said there are currently 46 students in classes taught at the Oneonta Academic Center in Blount County. 

“We’ve gotten so large we’ve started a morning class for a group of mothers who asked if we would do a morning class because they weren’t able to attend the afternoon classes due to family commitments,” Barnett said. That morning class currently has 20 students, with 26 students in the evening class.  

Barnett, who also teaches an ESL class at the Hanceville campus, said those classes have grown from three students to 26 in the past year.  

Since November 2020, Barnett said he’s helped about 200 students in his ESL classes. While most of the student population is from Spanish-speaking countries like Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, he has also had students from Japan, Vietnam and Jerusalem.  

“We offer English classes so students can communicate better in their community, to learn English to hopefully pass the citizenship exam, and then to prepare them to be more successful in the GED programs,” Barnett said. “These students are motivated and willing to come and participate and learn English so they can become a part of this community and further themselves and our society. They are simply trying to find a better place and an opportunity to better themselves and that’s what we’re here for.” 

Barnett credits a grant from the State of Alabama for the increase in enrollment. The grant allowed the program to begin Tuesday Night Transformation classes in Oneonta, which provides a meal, childcare and a family literacy curriculum. 

“This enables families to eat together and also learn together,” Barnett said. The children attend classes where they participate in STEM activities while their parents are learning English.  

“There have been parents who were previously unable to come during the evening times who have been able to come now because of childcare,” Barnett said. “We average about eight children on Tuesday nights and the adult class is full.”

Barnett said in some cases, the children of the students have acted as translators for their parents. Parents can struggle for understanding when they are out in the community without their children and the children can struggle when they’re not yet familiar with the words they may face. 

“Eight-year-old children are translators…and there is a lot of vocabulary that an 8-year-old doesn’t understand in English much less in Spanish or vice versa,” Barnett said. “So that’s a large responsibility for a child that young to understand. I think learning English gives parents freedom so they’re not having to depend on their children to translate. 

“There have been a handful of students who have come to me and said, ‘Mr. John, thank you for your time because my children know that I can order better at a restaurant,’” Barnett said. They recognize that their parents’ communication skills are improving. 

Barnett said his reward is seeing his students enjoying their time in class and communicating with others. “When I see them having a good time and see them enjoying coming to an academic facility instead of dreading coming to class, those are those tiny gold nuggets that you have to take in,” Barnett said.  

Barnett said classes are split between basic and advanced classes, with plans to begin an intermediate class for those transitioning between those levels. Along with Barnett, who is a full-time ESL instructor, the program has three part-time instructors. The program falls under Wallace State’s Adult Education Department and the direction of Patti Wilkins.

Classes in Oneonta are offered Mondays and Tuesdays from 8:30-11:30 a.m. and 5:30-8:30 p.m. In Hanceville, classes are offered Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5:30-8:30 p.m. Another class is offered at The Link of Cullman County in Cullman on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 5-8 p.m. 

For more information, contact Wallace State’s Adult Education program at 256-352-8078 or by visiting www.wallacestate.edu/adulted to complete an inquiry form.