Learning on the clock

“I try to use a lot of workplace scenarios, talk about real needs, their immediate concerns.”
Tuesday, April 24, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:51 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
From left, students Abril Romano, Annie Glay and Jairo Hoyos-Rendon listen to instructor Audra Jenkins in a GED class for employees at The Bluffs retirement community.

Audra Jenkins uses real-life examples to teach English as a Second Language to her students — six adults all employed by The Bluffs, a nursing home off Grindstone Parkway on Bluff Creek Drive. With the help of a portable dry-erase board and any props Jenkins brings from home, a small conference room inside The Bluffs is transformed into a classroom.

Jenkins, employed by Columbia Public Schools as a teacher with the Adult Learning Center, will sometimes bring items such as a suitcase filled with clothing to quiz students on their vocabulary.

About the ALC

  • John McClure, coordinator of adult education and literacy, said the Adult Learning Center wants to make a name for itself in the community as a resource.
  • The ALC offers free classes in GED preparation, money management, English as a Second Language and citizenship preparation at six other sites: Douglass High School, JobPoint, Resource Center, Columbia Builds Youth, Centralia Middle School and Mexico Vocational and Technical school. At the headquarters, Douglass High School, courses last six weeks because students attend four to five times a week.
  • For more information, go to or call 214-3690.

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Her students sit at a table in their Bluffs uniforms of medical scrubs or a black polo shirt and khaki pants, taking a midday break from work to learn — with their employer’s blessing.

For the first time in the Adult Learning Center’s 30-year history, it has partnered with a not-for-profit business to educate adults at their workplace, said John McClure, coordinator of adult education and literacy for the ALC.

“We wanted to get some sites that are in partnership with businesses,” McClure said.

Employees of The Bluffs can attend classes twice a week at work while still getting paid.

“(They) will actually get something back from work other than a paycheck,” said Kevin Sievert, head of staff development for The Bluffs. Employees can take one of three classes, English as a Second Language, a GED prep course, or Money Management. All three are taught by Jenkins in the afternoon.

Sievert said the classes, which are made available first to employees with seniority, are kept small so students can receive more attention; right now, there are four to six in each class, with 16 people in all. Sievert thinks the program will continue after the first 10-week session is completed in May.

The partnership between The Bluffs and the ALC had been in discussion for a year and a half before it became a reality on March 16. McClure and Sievert agree the collaboration makes sense.

“This is the perfect opportunity for us to work with another nonprofit entity that had two of the main things we needed for success,” McClure said, “Number one was motivated students, and number two was a business that was motivated to encourage those students.”

Both Sievert and McClure cited convenience as a reason they think the program will be successful. Participants will not have to commute later in the evening or worry about additional child care.

Jenkins said she benefits from the workplace environment as well, incorporating it into her lesson plans, particularly in the ESL class.

“I try to use a lot of workplace scenarios, talk about real needs, their immediate concerns,” Jenkins said. “So obviously, overall, I want them to have a better grasp of both understanding and speaking English. ... More specifically, I want them to understand what their supervisors are telling them. I want them to understand what health benefits are available to them. I want them to understand what they’re signing when they say they want health insurance or something like that.”

Jenkins said most of her students have a basic grasp of English. That makes teaching easier, as Jenkins is not fluent in any language other than English.

Carmen Mendoza is a student in the ESL class. She has lived in Columbia for 3 ½ years and is originally from Mexico. “I like the teacher and I like the class because I need more English too,” Mendoza said. “It’s very important when you go to the store — you need English.”

Jenkins said she is excited to see her students build confidence, which she said is evident in their willingness to ask questions in the classroom.

“If they want to go out and talk to someone at Wal-Mart and ask them where to find something, they’re going to ask me first, how to say it,” Jenkins said. “Because people aren’t always that nice and patient with them when they’re trying to be understood. So a lot of times, they’ll just not say anything at all.”

Mendoza said that now, if she sees a Spanish speaker in public who is struggling with English, she will try to translate. “If someone needs help, I try to help,” she said.

For Jenkins, who began as a volunteer for the Adult Learning Center, teaching the classes is an opportunity to help the community. “It’s a really great program that helps a lot of people,” she said. “I’m really happy to have found it.”

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