Weather Forecast


Willmar's ABE program growing: Many students learning English, becoming citizens

WILLMAR -- Even on a quiet summer morning, the Adult Basic Education program in Willmar is a busy place.

A handful of people are studying quietly at computers or desks in one room at the Jefferson Learning Center, while next door seven people are in a beginning English class.

Across the hall, students are trickling in for the more advanced English class that is about to start.

The ages vary widely -- some are in their 20s, while others are in their 50s or beyond.

The common thread for these folks is that they are taking the initiative to make some change in their lives. Some want a high school diploma; others are working on computer skills. Citizenship and English classes are always busy.

In the past few years, the programs in the Glacial Lakes Consortium for Adult Basic Education have seen an increase in attendance. Much of that growth has been in the two largest programs, in Willmar and Hutchinson, said Adult Basic Education co-coordinator Jim Nicholson in Willmar.

In the past year, the consortium of 10 school districts served 1,842 people, an increase of more than 300 from the year before. The numbers of service hours provided increased from 55,000 to 61,274. More than 200 people earned a GED in the past year.

The economy has increased the need for the program's services, Nicholson said. It could increase even more with Hutchinson Technology announcing last week that it will be laying off 65 people.

"We've done a lot of computer training in the last year," he said. More than 100 people earned their GEDs through the consortium's programs.

The types of students vary by site, he said. In Hutchinson, the focus is more on people seeking GEDs or computer training. Willmar tends to have more students looking for English and citizenship classes.

In the past decade, Willmar has faced a particular challenge in working with students, many from Somalia, who have no previous school experience, Nicholson said.

"They have a world of experience but not in an educational setting," he said.

Some have never used a scissors or learned how to hold a pen or pencil, "things we take for granted," he said. "They've never been in a learning environment, so they don't know what's expected of them."

Those students are making strides in the Willmar program, he said.

While there is a move at the state level to manage Adult Basic Education enrollment, Willmar hasn't gone there yet, Nicholson said.

"We don't know who's going to walk in any day," he said. "We still try to serve whoever comes in the door." New students can usually join an ongoing class right away rather than waiting days or weeks until the next session starts, he said.

Nicholson credited the program's staff with maintaining the open door policy. "Their flexibility and ability to adapt is key," he said.

The Willmar program moved to Jefferson Learning Center a year ago in a reorganization of the Willmar School District. The move gave Adult Basic Education more room, and it has helped the program grow.

"It's really been wonderful," Nicholson said. "We're not stepping on each other like we were in Washington (Learning Center)."

A busy day at Washington saw student numbers in the high 40s. At Jefferson, more than 60 students are studying there on some days.

The other districts in the Glacial Lakes Consortium are: Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City, Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa, Buffalo Lake-Hector, Dassel-Cokato, Hutchinson, Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg, Litchfield, New London-Spicer and Paynesville.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340