By Dr. Carole Bausell
Every year LCNV sends representatives to the Virginia Adult Education and Literacy Conference. Supported by the Virginia Department of Education and the Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center of Virginia Commonwealth University, it is a meticulously planned conference where one learns about best practices and future trends by attending sessions with subject matter experts, joining critical meetings with State education officials, and visiting with colleagues over delicious meals. It is always a good opportunity to find out how others are dealing with similar challenges and bring back home a slew of creative ideas. The conference models a real spirit of collaboration and sharing. For our part, we try to share some of our own innovations by submitting to the selection committee a presentation about something we have done that addresses a common problem and thus could be of service to others.
This year’s conference took place from February 19 – 21, at the Hotel Madison & Shenandoah Valley Conference Center in Harrisonburg, VA. I managed to hitch a ride down with one of my highly esteemed regional colleagues who was driving down on Tuesday evening. Ashley King, LCNV Admissions Manager and Registrar, also attended and joined me for Program Managers Meeting that is critical for state grant recipients such as LCNV. But before that, we both attended a terrific half-day institute on distance learning presented by Dr. Jen Vanek, Director of Digital Learning and Research at the EdTech Center at World Education. Little did we know that in less than a month’s time, the skills gained in this training would be used to reinvent our entire course catalogue!
The theme of this year’s conference was Vision for the Future. Every innovation we have tried at LCNV has been designed to help us fulfill our mission and vision more completely. The part of our mission where we explain why we teach folks English—so they can access employment and educational opportunities and more fully and equitably participate in the community—flashes through my mind whenever I get to explain one of these innovations. The key word for me is equitably. In truth, we talk a lot about equity at LCNV. (You can find the full LCNV mission and vision on our website here: https://englishempowermentcenter.org/about/)
Several months before the conference, Roopal Saran, Soo Park and I had submitted a presentation to the selection committee entitled, Stackable Credentials that Propel Beginning English Learners along Career Pathways: Partnership Development that Leads to Innovation. It was accepted and I was there to present on behalf of our team. What are stackable credentials? According to the Department of Labor, stackable credentials are “…part of a sequence of credentials accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualification to help them move along a career pathway or up a career ladder to potentially different and higher paying jobs.” (https://www.credentialingexcellence.org/blog/5-things-you-should-know-about-stackable-credentials.) Since most of our learners do not have the gift of unlimited time to devote to studies, the idea of providing them with stepping stones along a career pathway is appealing. Each credential attained shows potential employers that they have acquired job-relevant skills. Each credential attained develops confidence and motivation to pursue the next one. But what happens when the lowest hanging fruit—the most accessible credential— is still out of reach for some learners? That is the problem that we had confronted. The story about what we did next led to this year’s conference presentation.
Going back to the concept of stackable credentials, I digress briefly to reminisce about my childhood aspirations around climbing trees. The posse of kids in our apartment complex comprised youngsters of varying ages, both girls and boys. Climbing trees was one of the most prestigious activities in which they engaged. I can still remember looking way up into the branches of one of the hardest-to-climb trees. There perched comfortably at the intersection of several sturdy branches, sporting a look of confidence, with leaves all around and patches of blue sky peeking out here and there—was one of the older kids. My heart sank. There were no footholds low enough to be of any use to the likes of me. I knew right away that I didn’t possess the skills and attributes needed to climb that tree. My arms, legs, height, strength, balance and confidence all fell short. Add to that my lifelong fear of heights and you can understand why I lacked the motivation to even give it a try.
But then out of the blue, a ray of hope: my father emerged out of nowhere and offered me a leg-up as well as some guidance as to the most promising pathway to reach my goal. How many times in life have I been offered and taken advantage of a leg-up? Too many to count. It came in different forms: scholarships, tutoring, coaching, internships, exceptional teaching, parental instruction, preparatory courses for major examinations such as the GREs, a great adviser, an exceptional boss. I would have to say that having literate parents who always knew how to help me and had the means to procure help when they didn’t was my first big leg-up. But enough with the metaphor.
An interesting group of educators and administrators from across the state had assembled in my assigned space on that Wednesday afternoon to hear my presentation. I looked around the room and remembered previous years at the conference and the many excellent presentations full of ideas that had shaped my own thinking immeasurably and lifted up the practices of so many of us. It felt like such a privilege to follow in the footsteps of these presenters and a wee bit intimidating too. I told my audience it felt like standing on the backs of giants. Then I began talking about the LCNV IET program.
IET stands for Integrated Education and Training, a teaching model wherein an English teacher and an occupational trainer team up to prepare students to earn a nationally known, industry-recognized credential. LCNV selected an IET course that leads to the Guest Service GoldÒcredential from the American Hotel and Lodging Educational Institute. We selected this particular credential for several reasons. First among them, there are a plethora of hospitality jobs in our area so the credential could help lead to a job. Second, upon examining the book content and the test, we believed that we could get many of our higher level learners (those in our level 3 Beginning English classes) successfully though the course. Finally, customer service in general is very much part of the American workforce culture. We would be able to provide students examples of customer service outside of the hospitality industry as well, thereby making it relevant to an even wider swath of students.
However, as I told my audience, when one of our partners serving the lowest-level English speakers asked us to offer this course to a small group of day laborers, we cautioned them about the English level it required, but in the end agreed to give it a try. We reached out to an experienced team, placing a stellar teacher and master trainer at the helm. But this was not to be one of those stories where it all worked out. Despite the greatest of efforts, in the end the results were not what we had hoped to see. Only the higher level English speakers succeeded. Other students did not feel confident enough to attempt the end-of-course exam. This group of students shared these circumstances: (1) they lived in linguistic isolation; (2) they had an educational background with incomplete schooling (sometimes elementary school only) and (3) they lived in poverty.
It would have been easy to go back to business as usual and deny future entry to this course to lower level English learners until their English had advanced, which could take years. But can we as an educational institution afford to make the pathway to credentials so long and arduous that those who need them most believe they are unattainable? In the end it was not a hard decision. LCNV Manager of Instructional Design Soo Park created a bridge course entitled, Foundations of Customer Service, designed to prepare students for the higher-level, credential-bearing course Guest Service GoldÒ. We went on to pilot the Foundations course, make improvements, and offer it to many learners with success. We also went on to partner with Cell-Ed, a Silicon Valley-based company offering mobile-learning solutions, to create microlessons from the content of this course to be offered as distance learning.
As I relayed to my colleagues that day, this was truly an example of innovation emerging out of failure, that in turn revealed a great need for equity of opportunity. Access after all, has everything to do with equity. Now we find ourselves in uncharted coronavirus territory with our buildings closed, reinventing course offerings through distance learning. Once again we aim to serve the needs of all of our learners, regardless of their backgrounds. Perhaps there will be a story in it about innovation for next year’s conference. I hope so.