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Stepping stones to the future: Dickinson Adult Learning Center helping newcomers earn GEDs, learn English

Dickinson Adult Learning Center assistant instructor Holly Strom assists Yadira Fernandez, left, and Consuelo Pantelon, right, as they work in their English as a Foreign Language textbooks on Wednesday at the learning center.

Justin Morales moved to Dickinson in February in search of employment, but he ran into a roadblock.

Potential employers requested his high school diploma, which he didn’t have.

At 27 years old and with a family, Morales was motivated to earn his GED degree, so he turned to the Dickinson Adult Learning Center.

It wasn’t easy, he said. He had dropped out of high school as a sophomore and lived in at least 30 of the 48 states while his dad was in the military and his parents helped failing restaurants.

Morales completed the English, social studies and science units, but math was his stumbling block. He wasn’t sure he’d ever finish.

“It seemed insurmountable — I studied all day every day,” he said. “There was no way my daughter would think her dad was a high school dropout. I needed to finish school. I needed to help myself.”

He credited the learning center’s staff for encouraging him along the way.

“They were always asking how they could help you,” he said. “They even arranged to get a tutor for me in math. That helped me get over the hump”

Academic instructor Paula Loegering described Morales as motivated and persistent.

“I was a little worried about his math skills, but he came in very faithfully,” she said. “We find out where students are at and what they need. From there, we get a study plan.”

Morales worked in a Dickinson restaurant while studying for his GED. He graduated June 9 after six weeks of studying. Today, he is working as a cook in another Dickinson restaurant and believes the GED degree is his stepping stone to the future.

Similar stories of success are common at the learning center — a reason why its coordinator, Beth Grandell, is reaching out to other prospective students.

“We are always looking to attract new students — we are here for them, we provide many services,” she said.

ESL and computers

“English as a second language is a very strong program; in fact we have more students studying English than our GED students and computer students,” Grandell said. “It’s a highly utilized program, even though there are people in the community who don’t know about us.”

Students often hear about the program through word of mouth, such as at church or work.

“We do one-on-one tutoring and also group conversations around a table with a teacher,” she said. “We have so many different levels of speakers, whether they only speak a few words in English or have higher skills — it doesn’t matter.”

The desire to speak English may vary from survival skills, such as buying groceries, to helping children with their homework, and obtaining employment, she said.

“We’ve had many African tribal languages, French speakers, some Chinese students, a Russian student, and of course, lots of Spanish,” she said. “We have a staff member who speaks Spanish, but it’s impossible to find somebody who speaks the tribal languages. We’ve found that’s OK. We use language learning software such as Rosetta Stone.”

The students are encouraged to study at the center as often as possible.

“If they can come consistently every week, they will learn a lot faster,” she said. “There is no required attendance — people have jobs, they have families, every day they come is great.”

The center is preparing to launch its fall computer skills classes.

“There’s always people who don’t have computer experience — GED tests are now computerized across the country and must be taken on the computer. We teach resume writing, keyboarding and a variety of things to help them, technology-wise.”

Focusing on the future

North Dakota’s adult learning centers are funded through a grant program. There is a $30 registration fee, but scholarships are available.

The center is under the umbrella of the Dickinson Public Schools. Originally established to administer the GED program, the center’s mission has evolved.

“Right now, the focus is on college and career readiness,” Grandell said. “We offer resources to help them with their future. Our greater goal is job placement and higher education if that’s the path they want. We work closely with Job Service, Vocational Rehabilitation and community agencies in town.”

Going into her third year as coordinator, Grandell looks forward to work each day at the center.

“I really love the fact that students who come here are by their own choice,” she said. “They really appreciate their education being given and are more motivated. We have such a variety from all walks of life.”

Connecting through language

Among the students studying English are Yadira Fernandez from Venezuela and Consuelo Pantaleon from Columbia.

Fernandez enrolled at the center last month. Explaining why her family moved to western North Dakota, she said through a translator, “My husband found a job with an oil company — we were looking for a better life. We have lived 11 years in the United States. I lived in Florida before coming to Dickinson. It’s good here. It’s great.”

With a career in business administration, Fernandez need to improve her English skills to find a job in Dickinson. She has a son in college and another enrolled at Dickinson High School.

She said the English program at the center has been excellent. She expects her training to be gradual, but she has been making friends along the way.

Pantaleon’s husband also found a job with a petroleum company more than a year ago. She has continued to study English at the center, and is working on her grammar skills..

“This system is wonderful,” she said. “I already tried this in Miami and North Carolina, but there’s something very personal here — that’s the most important part. In this place, it’s like you have your own teacher.”

As an added bonus, Pantaleon has been making friends from other nations around the world.

“We share our culture and we have table conversational time where we interact,” she said.

Pantaleon studied nursing in Columbia, and will begin working on her CNA certificate through St. Benedict’s Health Center. Even the match with the nursing home was arranged through the Adult Learning Center.

Pantaleon and her husband have a blended family of six children and two grandchildren. They are preparing to adopt a young woman from Honduras to support her career goals in America.

“It’s my passion to help people, especially the elderly,” she said.

Her next step is to enroll in computer classes at the center this fall.

As an assistant instructor, Holly Strom helps the students correct their work and answer questions.

“I also help with table conversations,” she said. “The topic today is comparisons between their countries — how we are alike and how we are different.”

Strom appreciates her job for the reward of helping people and for herself.

“Every day, I leave here with new information,” she said. “I consider these folks here are all my family — they amaze me. I enjoy it so much. We make learning fun and we do a lot of laughing.”

To learn more about the Dickinson Adult Learning Center, call 701-456-0008. or visit dickinsonalc.com.