Marco Proano reading alongside his 8-year-old grandson. Credit: Adriana Proano

Marco Proano’s long-term goal is to one day work as an interpreter for the Latino community. His shorter-term goal is to learn enough English to talk to his grandkids about games, music, and what his life was like growing up. 

The 68-year-old first began learning English when he lived in Ecuador, his home country. He was a microbiology teacher but later served as an unofficial teaching assistant in his English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes. During those classes, Proano would interpret for the instructor when the former didn’t know how to say specific words in Spanish for Spanish-speaking students. 

He moved to the U.S. in 2023. And last summer, just after getting his green card, he enrolled in a free English language learner class at P.S. 212 in Jackson Heights. It’s a 15-minute walk from where he lives with his wife, daughter, grandchildren and his daughter’s best friend. 

“When it’s time to head to class, I feel like the happiest man in the world,” he said. 

To help strengthen his English, Proano would borrow his grandson’s English third-grade workbooks. He also binged on English-language romantic comedies with subtitles and language-learning videos on YouTube. 

“Just yesterday my professor told me not to torture myself trying to learn it all at once — to take it slow,” Proano said in Spanish. 

He soon advanced to a higher level class. He loved being part of this community of learners from all over the world, people mostly in their 30s and 40s, with dreams of career advancement and hopes of assimilation.

Then, a month or two ago, the classes got fuller, from about 15 participants to sometimes 30. When attendance is full, some participants have to stand. 

Epicenter NYC spoke with the city and English language learning providers across the city to find out what’s been going on. 

A rising demand for ESOL classes

In a city facing a higher demand for English language classes, English Language Learners (ELLs) like Proano have seen the need for more resources. So have the library systems and community organizations that offer them. 

The demand comes as more migrants continue to be bussed into the city and strive to learn English as a way to better position themselves for job prospects once they receive a work authorization

“One of the most common (and potentially the most discouraging) is the difficulty or inability to continue working in the industries or fields where they worked before in their native countries,” Brooklyn Public Library spokesperson Fritzi Bodenheimer said via email. “Validating and evaluating their transcripts is expensive and starting over from scratch is daunting.” 

To respond to the increase in demand, the Brooklyn Public Library offered nearly 1,000 English language learning sessions between July and December 2023 — 42% more sessions than in the previous six months. Those included services like free conversation groups, formal classes, and drop-in sessions. The total number of participants — 9,600 — was 27% higher than in the previous period. Last fall, BPL also doubled the number of locations where they offered classes. Their waiting list is also more robust than in previous times, according to Bodenheimer.

A breakdown of the primary languages of people on the waitlist for Brooklyn Public Library English language learning classes between October 2023 and January 2024. Credit: BPL

A $1 million stopgap

Mayor Eric Adams’ city budget cuts, scheduled for the fiscal year starting this July, threaten to exacerbate the situation. When the cuts were first announced in November, they included a $255,000 reduction in civics-focused English language learning programming under We Speak NYC. The program, run through the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA), offers beginner and intermediate English classes. 

The cuts will not impact the access people have to the curriculum already available online, according to MOIA, yet it was unable to offset the budget cuts for the upcoming fiscal year. 

But as a temporary measure for this fiscal year, the agency is injecting funds into community-based organizations as part of an over $1 million investment toward beginner-level We Speak NYC programming

“English learning has always been in demand — we have been receiving newly arrived migrants all the time,” said MOIA spokesperson Shaina Coronel. 

“It’s just a little bit different because this time, some migrants are getting bused in,” she said. “So we wanted to meet the needs that we’re seeing on the ground today with newly arrived migrants and also long-term.”

When MOIA staffers spoke with immigrant-serving community organizations across the boroughs last year, they heard about the increased need for in-person classes. Before this most recent initiative, the city agency’s English language and civic education programming had been mostly online. 

“[The goal was] to create an environment where we have both newly arrived migrants interacting with longtime migrants staying in their communities,” Coronel said. 

In-person classes also teach ELLs how to navigate services in the same community-based locations where they can seek help, she said: “They can have that follow-up conversation with them, like ‘here’s where you need to go to get your IDNYC — here are the documents you need to get the IDNYC’. That’s a real missed opportunity in the online classes.” 

In the past few months, ten immigrant-serving organizations have received $25K to coordinate these MOIA “English Learning and Support Centers” as part of a pilot program:

The funds cover services from February to June of this year. Organizations we spoke with serve three cohorts of eight-week English language learner classes for the pilot. At the end of the classes, participants receive a certificate of completion — “a symbolic sort of measure to say you are taking the right steps to learn English,” said Coronel. 

The Queens Public Library, New York Public Library, and Brooklyn Public Library also received funding from MOIA to expand their We Speak NYC offerings.

With the funds, BPL is going to double the number of locations where classes are offered, according to Bodenheimer. It will be the second time in the past year they’re doubling because of the high demand.

The Muslim Community Network, like other “English Learning and Support Centers,” are at capacity with their classes, which are held at a mosque in the Bronx. 

“People are very eager to do the program — like immigrants who don’t know English at all and really want to be able to communicate with people around them,” said Nafisa S Al Hafiz, the finance, operations, and human resources manager at Muslim Community Network.

“Obviously, we want to give personal attention to all of them, but we’re not really able to have more than 20 people in the classroom,” she said. 

DSI International, Inc., which serves mostly African and Haitian community members, is also getting a huge number of people reaching out for English language instruction. “This set of immigrants specifically want to learn English to make their living in America easy for them,” said DSI program manager and We Speak NYC coordinator Audu Kadiri. 

DSI’s first cohort of students, which graduated in early April, were especially engaged with lessons on introductions and about wedding days, Kadiri says. He says the program has so far been so successful at empowering participants, they started advocating to have class without the use of an interpreter. They found they learned more that way, he says.  

The goal, according to MOIA, is to expand to more community sites and to make the programming a regular service beyond the pilot. To measure progress, MOIA will be looking at factors like how many participants complete the program. The future of expansion, though, rests on the future of the city budget. 

Marco Proano reads about musical geniuses and other greats in an English language workbook. Credit: Adriana Proano

Meanwhile, learners like Proano measure their success in small steps, like more effective eavesdropping on his daughter’s conversations with her roommate. 

“Now I can do things I couldn’t before — I can use the subway, I can ask folks for help when I get lost,” Proano said. “Sometimes I think I know more than I do, but my English seems to revert back to what it was. But I don’t get frustrated — I’m always eager to learn.”

He hopes to one day become fluent in English. He recently enrolled in a paid English language class at LaGuardia Community College in hopes of learning faster — in time to maybe understand the English-language tour guides during his next family trip to Greece or Alaska. 

His daughter, Epicenter NYC Community Coordinator Adriana Proano, says his drive inspires her every day: “That man is unstoppable,” she said. 

If you know someone who might be looking for adult ESOL classes in NYC, you can find an interactive map of sites at this link.

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