Community Adult ESL Recruitment and Retention

Community Adult ESL Recruitment and Retention

by Zachary Smith

With the rising numbers of migrant and immigrant families joining our communities, states are increasing funding for community ELL courses. Initially, this is viewed as a positive way to spend state funding. However, there are facts that can make recruiting members of these populations difficult, and once the classes are full, many other factors lead to issues of retention. If your community has ELL classes for migrant and immigrant families, here are some ways to increase productivity and results in your efforts of recruitment and retention.

Recruitment is incredibly important as “word of mouth” advertising is very effective within communities. If one family has a positive experience in the community ESL class, then more will hear about it through them. This can help a new course catch on very quickly. Other recruitment tools include the following:

  • Use Local Resources
    Advertise on the local radio and television stations. If you or your organization can produce the commercials, it is possible to have local stations (both radio and TV) play these as Public Service Announcements (PSAs). These PSAs are usually broadcast at a discounted fee or no cost at all. Remember to use both English and the native language(s) of the migrant and immigrant population of the area.
  • Create Partnerships
    There are many organizations, such as religious organizations, that assist with sponsoring immigrant and migrant families. Reach out to these programs or organizations with fliers regarding your ESL courses. These organizations can help increase word of mouth publicity for your classes.
  • School Websites
    Exposure is everything. Not only should you advertise on the school’s website, but reach out to the K-12 schools (or school districts) in your community. Write a press release for immediate publication and release to the school districts. This way, the information that you want to share is done in a way that you approve. Also, work with the teachers in the local school district. These teachers will know the migrant and immigrant families within the district. Give fliers to the teachers to give to the students’ parents. This would be most effective right before parent-teacher conferences so the teacher can hand it directly to the parent.

Once you have the class built up, the next step is retaining the students. There are so many factors that hurt retention that one does not think about unless he or she has experience teaching in these programs. Here are some ways to assist with retention for community ESL programs:

  • Get to Know Your Students
    What are the students’ goals and reasons for taking the class? By doing a survey of the students, the teachers and program can align the course goals and objectives along with the students’ goals. The students are more likely to continue their attendance if their individual goals are being met by the course.
  • Reach Out to Students
    Once a new member attends a class for the first time, reach out to that student. Ways to reach out include a phone call or a personalized, handwritten letter. These should thank the student for coming and serve as a reminder of important information for the program.
  • Acknowledge Special Life Events
    By getting to know your students, you can recognize their accomplishments and life events. Did one of them have an important birthday? Is it Chinese New Year? Did one of their children graduate from high school? No matter the holiday or event, recognize it. This helps to create a family within the course, too. Soon the students in the class will consider each other friends and will cherish these personal connections. The more personal connections a student can make in these classes, the higher the retention rate.
  • Flexibility is Key
    Very often, the main reason a student has to stop attending class is due to a new work schedule. Many of these students work in a setting where their schedules are inconsistent; they don’t commonly work a “nine to five” job in a corporate setting. These students may work in areas such as retail, restaurant and hotel hospitality, or agriculture. Many jobs in these areas have inconsistent hours switching between first and second shift, and our students must take whatever hours they can get in order to support their families. Therefore, having communication set up with students is key. If students can e-mail or call to let you know of a schedule change, you can work at getting them into another class section if multiple class times are offered. You must be flexible in allowing students to switch between class sections and times.

Community-based ESL classes are a wonderful resource for immigrant and migrant populations. The struggle, however, is being able to effectively recruit and retain these students. These are only a few of the ways that can help to make sure that classes continue to be available and accessible for this population. What are some ways you have recruited and retained adult students?

Zachary Smith is an Adult Literacy and ELL teacher for Kirkwood Community College based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. If you have questions regarding recruitment or retention for community ELL programs, you are invited to contact Zachary at or via Twitter @zas85.

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