For 50 years, Barton School has been helping adults decode the mysteries of the English language.
Hosted at First Presbyterian Church in downtown Spokane, the volunteer-staffed school offers free one-on-one tutoring, primarily for adults for whom English is a second language.
Last week, Hannah Wang regaled teacher Yvonne Rentner with descriptions of the varieties of melons found in her native Shanghai.
When Wang arrived in Spokane four years ago she spoke very little English.
“It was difficult to communicate with others when I go shopping,” she said. “I see what I want, but I don’t know the name.”
Students like Wang weren’t exactly what Amsel Barton had in mind when she founded the school in 1969.
Current director Mildred Scheel said when Barton retired from Eastern Washington University she felt she was “too young to be put on the shelf.” She launched the school as an adult literacy program aimed at those who struggled with reading and writing.
“But her first student was a Japanese-born wife of an American serviceman,” Scheel said. “Now the school is completely ESL (English as a second language).”
Indeed, the roster of students from the past 50 years reads like a veritable United Nations. Immigrants from countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Korea, Vietnam, to name just a few, have received tutelage in the classrooms at First Presbyterian Church.
Originally, the school offered both day and night classes because most of their students were working and had families.
Now classes are held three days a week with child care provided.
The program is student-directed.
“We ask the students what they need when they come in and then we match them with a teacher,” Scheel explained.
The pairing is often serendipitous.
“One time we had a doctor from Poland who couldn’t practice because he couldn’t speak or read English,” Scheel recalled. “The very next day a retired doctor called wanting to volunteer.”
In a quiet classroom last week, Olivia Coulliez worked with a young mother from Iraq.
“I taught French for 32 years,” she said. “When I retired from Lewis and Clark, I decided to teach English – with a French accent.”
Her pupil smiled shyly.
“She’s good friend. Good people.”
Coulliez said she enjoys her work at Barton School.
“It goes beyond teaching the language. It’s being a friend,” she said.
As Scheel prepares for the school’s upcoming 50-year celebration, she’s thought a lot about how to measure success. She began volunteering at the school in 1977, after retiring from a teaching career.
“I love meeting people and knitting didn’t make me smile,” she said.
In 1979, she was named director.
“Our success comes in cans,” Scheel said. “When I hear students say, ‘I can do this!’ ”
Often the things that stand out to her are the little things. Like the pride a 70-year-old Russian student felt when she was able to communicate to a butcher that she wanted a whole chicken instead of one that was already cut up.
Many years of watching the student’s achievements both big and small have led Scheel to believe, “You can do almost anything you want to do. You’ve no idea what you can accomplish. I’ve seen things beyond my wildest imagination.”
For Wang, finding her voice is enough.
“I knew many words, but not how to speak them. I called it silent English,” she said. “Now, I’m not scared to communicate with others. If I don’t know the word, I find a way to get to it.”
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