Access to learning soars as ESL goes online

Last March, ReWA’s ESL Team was struggling: few of the immigrants and refugees who attended ESL classes had internet or computer access at home.

Now, a year later, ReWA is offering five classes online serving over 70 students.

How did we do it? Let’s go back to March 13, 2020, the day Seattle Schools closed…

My name is Inga Muscio, I’m an English teacher at ReWA. Our students were suddenly out of the classroom, and we had to figure out how to help them keep up with the normalcy and ritual of our weekly classes. For many of our students, ESL classes are their primary opportunity to experience life in their new country in a safe, supportive atmosphere. In class, they have no need to be embarrassed or ashamed that they cannot communicate as well as they would like.

Having no frame of reference, much less any idea when we’d be able to get everyone back in the classroom, the ReWA ESL team rose to the challenge of this pandemic with ingenuity, compassion and resourcefulness.

We started off by immediately sending our students huge homework packets that could keep them learning for a few weeks as we transitioned to online classes. We weren’t sure how we’d do it, but we had to let them know that this was one part of their lives would hold steady, no matter what.

For our intermediate students, teachers kept in touch with phone calls and texts during those first few weeks, while we cobbled together a plan for the long term.

Our beginning level students, however, were in danger of slipping away from us. Lisa is a Level 1 English teacher at ReWA. She quickly discovered that many of her students were already using web-based chat apps like Viber and WhatsApp to communicate with family and friends near and far. So she downloaded the apps and was immediately successful reaching students who may have gone by the wayside.

The ESL team had started to meet weekly to share ideas on how to keep students engaged with remote learning and soon all the teachers were using the apps.

ReWA ESL teachers met weekly to share lessons-learned on keeping students connected during the pandemic.

After six months of online classes we took stock of our student population discovered something wonderful had happened: instead of losing students when in-person classes were cancelled, we found that many more were able to attend classes now because we offered online learning.

Marie, our evening English teacher, was the first to notice. Almost all of her students hold down full time-jobs. Pre-covid, they showed up to class tired to the bone. But when classes moved online, these students were able to get off work and log on when they got home with their families. Word spread and Marie’s evening class size doubled.

In addition, some students who had moved geographically further away from ReWA could still participate in English classes online. Class sizes were increasing for all of our teachers. Almost a year in, our classes are all filled to capacity.

stack of laptops
ReWA distributed 60 laptops to adult learners so they can learn computer literacy and stay connected to online ESL classes.

New possibilities have also arisen. One ReWA ESL teacher had a student who needed surgery. He was quite frightened, especially about being put under anesthesia. His teacher tried to assuage his fears, to no avail. Then she thought of two friends who are anesthesiologists. She set up a Zoom meeting for all of them to speak together.  The anesthesiologists had the knowledge and expertise to answer all of the student’s questions, and more importantly, to calm fears.

We now know that when things finally do get back to normal, online learning will continue to be an important part of our ESL program. Also, with funding from King County’s “Digital Equity for Adults with Barriers to Access and Services” program, ReWA distributed 60 laptops to our students, and with that, one of the major learning barriers has been lifted. While we all miss our students and love teaching in person, we certainly cannot ignore the many people we are now able to serve online.

[box] In February 2021 ReWA launched “Talk Time”, a twice-weekly, volunteer-led, online conversation group to help immigrants and refugees practice English conversation skills, discuss current events, and make social connections. If you are a ReWA client and would like to join the conversation group, email If you want to learn how to volunteer with ReWA, email [/box]

Starting Careers in Childcare










Congratulations to the 12 graduates of the Early Childhood Education Initial Certificate course who completed a year of academic studies in partnership with North Seattle College and attended the first ever graduation ceremony online on August 19th

Certificate for Early Childhood Education certificate
Teachers presented students with their certificates at the graduation on Zoom in August 2020

Salwa is one of these graduates. Since completing ReWA’s ChildCare Basics training course last year, she found a job as an assistant teacher at a preschool in Kent.

“I love working with these children everyday, to be a part of their growing up,” she said.

Although she has her own growing family to manage at home, she continued with two more training courses and graduated in August with an Initial Certificate in Early Childhood Education.

ThiThi Gray, program coordinator said, “I am so proud of these students. Some of them really struggled in the beginning with going back to school, then moving classes online during the pandemic. But they pushed through. This wasn’t just a vocational training program—this is changing their own self-expectations. And it’s affecting all parts of their lives.”

Salwa is now a lead teacher at the preschool, and plans to continue her education in early Childhood Education at a local college. (She also got her driver’s license in 2020–well done, Salwa!)

Congratulations to all the 2019 Graduates!


Next Steps chart for students interested in Early Childhood Education certification
Next Steps chart for students interested in Early Childhood Education certification

ESL online: bridging the digital divide

ReWA’s ESL Coordinator, Yuliya Matyushkina, doesn’t usually make house-calls, but last week she did. Wearing a face mask and social distancing, she visited several adult English learners to help them learn to use a laptop for English classes.

ReWA’s six classrooms in Seattle, Kent and SeaTac, reach over 200 students each year. English learners come from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Vietnam, and Syria, among others.

Since the COVID outbreak, ReWA English teachers have created a distance-learning curriculum and integrated technology into instruction.

 “The challenge with online learning is that many of our students are not tech savvy. So, when classes were suspended for the COVID-19 outbreak, we had to get creative–not only with English lessons but making sure they are informed about the pandemic so they can keep their families safe.””

According to a 2018 study, 21% of low-income households in Seattle have no internet access.

ReWA’s English teachers report that while students’ tech skills vary, some are connecting with teachers on apps like Viber, WhatsApp, or make regular calls or text. “For some students getting ESL lessons is a way to have a routine during the day,” ESL teacher, Karin Kaups said.

ESL teacher's finger pointing to mailed homework packet
When ESL classes were cancelled in March, teachers sent homework packets by mail.

But many English students lack laptops or wifi access, and those with school-age children have extra challenges at home. “It’s hard to engage families when their kids are struggling with online education, too,” Yuliya said.

But with recent donation of laptops for the ESL students, Yuliya is making home visits to provide hands-on instruction on how to use the computer and access online learning resources—not just about English, but about Covid-19 health information, job resources, applying for unemployment, finding food banks, and learning how to video conference.

Kaups observed, “When I talk to a student on video chat at home, we realize shared hobbies, like gardening. And that opens the door to meaningful, authentic conversations, which is where the best language learning happens. Also, when I introduce a new vocabulary word, like ‘fork’, it’s easy to just grab one in the kitchen to show.”

With a return to some in-person services this summer, English classes will likely remain a hybrid of YouTube videos, homework packets arriving by mail, and weekly check-ins by phone with their teacher.

Preschool Teacher Training

Last month, ReWA’s Kent classroom was host to a dozen students proudly displaying their diploma in Child Care Basics, the first step in a career in early childhood education. Florence held her diploma and smiled, proudly. “I have 40 years of experience teaching, but without credentials it was difficult to get a job.”

ReWA program coordinator, Sara Cooley said, “Our students come from a variety of backgrounds and life experience: Sudan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Central America. Some have raised their own families and are looking for a second career outside the home, and others are just starting careers.

Until last August, this meant they could complete the CCB class and work as an assistant teacher, but new state rules require assistant teachers to have high school diploma, GED and ECE Initial Certificate within five years of their hire date.  

Starting January 2020, ReWA offers two courses to help students meet these requirements. For English Language Learners (ELL) level 2 students the 10-week STARS Child Care Basics course is the first step. They practice English, build ECE vocabulary, and learn about US work culture. It is also a pathway to I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education Skills and Training), a solid foundation for ELL students to pass the GED test and advance to college courses. 

Cooley is enthusiastic about the new courses at ReWA. “By hosting classes in the Kent office, ReWA is bridging the gap between technical colleges and the clients who need them.”

She added, “Some of the students don’t picture themselves going to college—this new course includes the basics of filling out applications, paperwork, and field trips to college campuses, so they can feel comfortable on campus.”

Once students have completed Child Care Basics course and reached ESL level 3, they can enroll in the ECE Initial Certificate course, also taught at ReWA’s Kent office, in partnership with North Seattle College. After completion of the CCB and Initial ECE course, students have all the tools and certificates needed to advance in a career.

Just ask Florence: she now works as an assistant teacher in Auburn, and plans to enroll in the Initial Certificate course.  “Working with young children is very challenging, but I enjoy it very much.”

Honoring Our Mothers

Huong Nguyen is an ESL volunteer with some deep roots with ReWA. Her mother was Emmanuelle Chi Dang, and you may recognize her portrait from the ReWA lobby.

“My mother was an English teacher in Vietnam. She was a very active person, so after she resettled in Seattle, she had a vision to help Vietnamese refugees. Many of them had no English language, and without English, you can’t get a job.” She also focused on helping women in domestic violence situations, because they often lacked the English skills to get help.

As an adult, Huong was busy raising her own family and didn’t have a chance to be involved with ReWA–until now.

“My mother dedicated her life to helping people. The night before she died, she said to me and my siblings, ‘You are all such beautiful children; and to be beautiful on the inside is even more important.’ “

By volunteering at ReWA’s ESL classes, Huong said she is honoring her mother’s last wish: to grow the seeds she planted and make her proud.

[box] Learn how you can support ReWA’s programs to help immigrants and refugees to the Puget Sound. [/box]