Partners in adult formation:  BIIN and Region 6 ESC

Published by Program Manager on

Partners in adult formation: BIIN and Region 6 ESC

English classes for adult learners are one of the most popular programs that BIIN provides. Even as other programs’ enrollments dipped during the worst months of the pandemic, interest in English classes at BIIN – online and eventually in person again – continued to grow. While this growth has been exciting to see, it has also posed some challenges for an organization that has historically relied on volunteers to lead its programs.

Volunteer teacher Susan Dennis was central to the growth of the Conversational English program over the years.

BIIN’s English programs began in 2018 as an outgrowth of the need for participants in citizenship classes to be prepared to have their naturalization interview in English. Yet not everyone is eligible to become a US citizen, and non-native English-speaking residents have many other reasons for wanting to learn English. Hence, the range and scope of BIIN’s English programs – including Conversational English, English for Parents, and Allies in Action – grew and diversified over time.

As the pandemic unfolded it became clear that the task of managing a team of volunteer English teachers was no longer something that a volunteer was able or willing to do. In 2021, BIIN staff stepped in to coordinate, recruit and communicate with volunteer teachers and the interns who help to facilitate the classes for a term at a time. In the summer of 2022, no volunteers were able to commit to teaching classes at BIIN, and so a trio of interns worked with staff member Janet Morford to plan and lead the classes themselves.

Elisabeth Stewart was one of three interns who planned and taught English classes in summer 2022, when no regular volunteers could commit to taking on this role.

However, this model could not be sustained, and with staff transitions on the horizon, time was of the essence. In July 2022, when then director Jaimi Washburn learned that another local organization was interested in partnering with BIIN to offer English classes to adults, she jumped at the chance to solidify this opportunity. Thanks to Jaimi’s prompt response and to their interest, a new partnership was formed between BIIN and the Region 6 Educational Service Center (R6 ESC).  Headquartered in Huntsville but offering adult education courses throughout the Brazos Valley, R6 ESC is one of several state-funded educational service centers. Becky Collet, who works with the Adult Education Department at R6 ESC, first reached out to BIIN, aware that we were already offering English classes to adult learners. Becky and her colleague Ambyr Weidner then met with Jaimi and Janet at BIIN, to hear about BIIN’s programs, visit the classrooms, and discuss the terms of a new partnership for English classes offered at BIIN. The partnership officially started in September 2022, just as Viviana Castillo, English Program Coordinator, began her year as an AmeriCorps member at BIIN.

As program coordinator, Viviana Castillo (left) has been responsible for working with four English class interns, including Alyssa Ramos (middle) and Jonathan Cortez (right), to facilitate the classes that meet four nights a week at the BIIN office. BIIN is grateful to Viviana for doing a superb job of overseeing the English program during this time of transition, and to the team of interns who have worked with specific English classes this fall.

Key to the success of the BIIN-R6 ESC partnership is a new division of labor

R6 ESC recruits, trains and communicates with the teachers who plan and lead the English classes. Thanks to a grant from the government, R6 ESC is able to pay these teachers a modest hourly stipend for the time they spend preparing and teaching. R6 ESC also takes charge of in-person registration and placement exams, to determine which instructional level is best suited for each participant.

BIIN recruits and trains the English Program Coordinator, who then trains and supervises the English class interns, who are assigned to work with specific English classes. BIIN also recruits volunteers to serve as “conversation partners” in classes. BIIN provides the classroom space and some materials, and its staff and interns do much of the communication with students and volunteers, outside of class.

Many of those involved in the English program pointed to how much everyone benefits from this new division of labor:

Becky Collet (R6 ESC): 

We believe one advantage to this partnership is that Region 6 can provide BIIN with teachers who are paid for their services.  We love volunteers but operating an all-volunteer program can be challenging and exhausting. Students are tested and placed in the correct level, which directly benefits the students.

Viviana Castillo (BIIN English Coordinator): 

The partnership has allowed for students to have consistent teachers. I know in the past, when BIIN was lucky enough to get volunteer teachers, they planned lessons and taught, and when volunteer teachers were not available, sometimes even interns would be responsible for this. I believe students like consistency and become very comfortable with the teacher.

Chanwoo Kim (BIIN intern):

Last summer, it was the interns’ job to plan and lead the English classes. While I would’ve enjoyed teaching the students at BIIN, the level 3 and 4 teachers Meg and Farida are academically-qualified and absolutely amazing at what they do. Having Meg and Farida teach has not only allowed the students to receive the quality education they deserve, but it has also allowed me to connect with the students on an individual level and form genuine friendships.

Ann Willaert (Level 1 teacher):

BIIN provides interns and volunteers who are welcoming and friendly. Not having to be concerned about the administrative part of the job (attendance, follow-up with students) is invaluable. I can concentrate on teaching and on establishing a friendly relationship with the students.

BIIN also has the trust of the immigrant community, and therefore students easily come and check out what you have to offer. The location is easily accessible and is not intimidating (as a government-related building might be for some newcomers).

Ambyr Weidner (R6 ESC):

This partnership is allowing us to serve a greater number of students and a venue to provide those services. Having interns and volunteers as conversation partners would be impossible for Region 6 without BIIN.

Level 1 teacher Ann Willaert finds that having a BIIN intern assigned to the class and volunteers present as conversation partners enables her to focus her energy on the lesson and on getting to know individual students.

With a new relationship, come challenges as well. It takes time and effort to launch a new partnership, especially when the partners already have their own experience and expectations for how the service will be provided. Even when one partner, R6 ESC, took charge of the registration and placement exams, they needed help from BIIN staff and interns, particularly when it came to communicating with students who had limited English or little experience with this process. There were understandably a number of challenges to work through in the first months of the partnership, as those involved recognize:

Alyssa Ramos (BIIN intern):

There were challenges related to the registration process and class attendance sheets.  Students are allowed to register periodically throughout the semester, and this means that the class rosters have to be constantly updated.

Chanwoo Kim (BIIN intern):

I felt like most of the information I got from R6 ESC (such as new sign-in sheet protocols) was from Viviana, who did a great job of keeping us up to date. But I wish there was more direct communication between the interns and R6 ESC on topics directly related to the delivery of English classes.

Viviana Castillo (BIIN English Coordinator):

In the beginning, there were some challenges related to the registration process and procedures for using the attendance sheets. Also, some of the teachers were not used to having volunteers in their classes, until we explained how much the students wanted them there to help with small group work and pronunciation. I believe these concerns came from miscommunication or a lack of communication. But once these were addressed, the partnership became much easier.

Becky Collet (R6 ESC):

The biggest challenge has been finding a space to register new students. Both rooms are used for classes, so we are currently holding registration once a month outside in the breezeway, under a canopy tent, but have decided to make some changes. Beginning in January we will offer registration every Monday evening. That will cut down on the wait time and we may be able to register students inside, in the hallway. Having up-to-date sign-in sheets to record attendance has also been a challenge, but everyone is getting that down. So, really, the challenges are small compared to the benefits of this partnership.

BIIN staff demonstrate their resourcefulness, by setting up a canopy in the breezeway just outside the office, to accommodate the flow of prospective students coming to register and take placement exams for the free English classes provided in partnership with R6 ESC.
A volunteer from TAMU and a Level 1 student work together on describing a person in a photo, using new vocabulary. Having multiple volunteers present to work with adult learners is an aspect of BIIN’s approach to language classes that teachers as well as students appreciate.

Indeed, overall, participants are feeling quite positive about how the new BIIN-R6 ESC partnership enables both organizations to serve adult learners in the community. People associated with each organization had much to say about what they have accomplished together this fall, and what they look forward to being able to do in the spring:

Ann Willaert (Level 1 teacher): 

Looking back, I am proud of the excellent partnership with my intern Jonathan Cortez, who has been of tremendous assistance with everything, from computers to attendance to helping out with copying and actual instruction. He has gained the trust of the students with his easygoing and happy character.

Looking forward, I think that the solid relationship we have established with BIIN is a recipe for success. I look forward to seeing it grow in the future as the program continues to blossom.

Jennifer Trejo (Level 2 teacher):

I love teaching and building relationships with my students, who are eager to learn and engaged in the class. I am excited to see which of my students, after completing their requisite hours and testing, will move up to Level 3 this spring, and which new students I will get from the Level 1 class.

Becky Collet and Ambyr Weidner (R6 ESC):

We are proud of the number of students that we have tested and placed in classes – approximately 100 students have been registered this fall.  We are also proud of the teachers who have welcomed everyone to their classes. We are excited to continue this partnership. We feel it is a wonderful opportunity for all who attend.

Alyssa Ramos (BIIN intern):

I am proud of the students. They have gained the confidence to speak up and ask questions, and most importantly, they are not shy to start conversations. 

Chanwoo Kim (BIIN intern):

I’m proud of the friendships I made with some of the students attending our English classes, again, made possible by the Level 3 and 4 teachers, Meg and Farida. I’ve had the invaluable opportunity to learn even more about some of the students by grabbing a cup of coffee with them after my classes or meeting up with them outside of class for dinner. Not only was I able to help provide opportunities for conversational English, I was also able to learn more about the lives of people in the immigrant community, and I can confidently say that my time as an intern at BIIN has been one of the most humbling experiences I’ve had in my time as a student at Texas A&M.

Viviana Castillo (BIIN English Coordinator):

I am excited to see the program expand, as we have seen growth in the number of students that we have registered. I am excited to find new ways to try to retain students this spring!  This partnership has been great, and I would like for everyone to know that we are all working together to provide the best for students and create a safe environment for everyone. Community and TAMU volunteers are what keep BIIN running and our adult learners really enjoy and appreciate everyone’s help. 

The fall term will wrap up in early December, to allow interns and other volunteers from area schools time to focus on their final exams and everyone to enjoy the end of year holidays. English classes for the spring term are scheduled to start in late January, and will once again meet each night, Monday through Thursday from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm.  If you are interested in volunteering as a “conversation partner” or in other classroom roles, please follow the prompts on our website: . If you have other questions about the program, you may reach out to program coordinator Viviana Castillo at .