Immigrant Whole Foods workers get schooled on English in the context of the supermarket

April 23, 2016

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

By Erica Pearson | epearson@nydailynews.com

“I want tabouli salad,” English instructor Paula DaSilva-Michelin said to one of her students during a recent role-playing exercise.

“Do you have gluten-free bagels?” she asked another.

The vocabulary may seem unusual, but it is tailored perfectly to her class at LaGuardia Community College — which is entirely made up of immigrant workers at Whole Foods grocery stores in New York City.

NYC PAPERS OUT. Social media use restricted to low res file max 184 x 128 pixels and 72 dpiThe classes, which are also being offered at Westchester Community College for workers at the crunchy supermarket chain’s suburban branches, were launched this spring as part of a new project from the nonprofit-backed New American Workforce program and the Community College Consortium for Immigrant Education.

The aim is for students to gain English speaking, reading and writing skills using the context of their supermarket workplace so that they can climb from positions like food preparation and maintenance to higher-paying spots as supervisors or on the sales floor.

“When the language that they are learning is directly applicable to what they can do tomorrow at work, students are much more motivated. They see that these are practical, they can put them into use right away,” said John Hunt, executive director for Adult Community Learning at LaGuardia.

About 80 “team members” from eight Whole Foods branches are currently taking classes taught by CUNY and SUNY faculty members, and organizers are planning to expand.

“It’s all about enabling a workforce and creating that sense of mobility. Having proficiency in English is very important today,” said Teresita Abay-Krueger, New York site coordinator for New American Workforce.

New American Workforce, which is run by the non-profit National Immigration Forum, largely focuses on hosting workshops and trainings about U.S. citizenship at hundreds of workplaces in eight cities, including New York. The initiative’s new “contextualized English” classes for retail workers — which are funded by the Walmart Foundation — are also up and running in Miami for workers at Publix stores and in Houston for Krogers employees. Miami Dade College developed the curriculum, which also has an online component.

During her LaGuardia Community College class, DaSilva-Michelin urged her students to pair up and interview each other, asking questions like “What department do you work in?” and “What do you do for your job?”

She was quick to correct common errors, reminding her students that it is “he works” not “he work” — and that cook or chef are jobs, but “cooker” isn’t.

Emma Compres, 50, said she’s hoping the experience will help her during interactions with her boss at the Whole Foods branch on 97th St. and Columbus Ave., where she works.

“With my boss, everything is (in) English,” said Compres, who works preparing food for the store’s salad bar. The Dominican immigrant, who lives with her husband in Manhattan, said she wants to climb to be a supervisor in her department. She’s been a Whole Foods worker for a decade.

Compres, like her fellow students, will spend two and a half hours each week in the 12-week afternoon class and was able to modify her work schedule in order to attend.

Ingrid Guzman, 43, who works at the same store in the bakery department, said her goals are even bigger.

“I want to be a regional bakery director, or something like that,” she said. She’s a confident speaker, but said that anytime she has to use email for work, she stumbles.

“You have to be professional for a higher position,” she said.