Harris County Department of Education Partners with Union for Workplace ESL for Hospitality Industry

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August 20, 2020 by HCDE Communications

Sara Gonzalez

Housekeeper Sara Gonzalez tired of not being able to communicate with her boss. Two years ago, her relative told her about an English as a second language (ESL) and workforce development partnership between Harris County Department of Education and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Texas.

Today she converses with her employer and is readying to begin GED classes so she can advance to become a medical assistant. Although COVID-19 required HCDE Adult Education to make a move to virtual teaching, she is patient with her progress.

“I understand that COVID-19 makes it hard to be in the in-person classes,” the 55-year-old student said. “I learned to study my lessons on my computer for two hours a day.”

HCDE’s Adult Education provides classes in ESL, GED, adult basic education and workforce development and partners with nonprofits and companies for specialized classes which serve up curriculum specific to occupations. The programs are promoted through Workforce Solutions.

Partner SEIU is a Gulf Coast union serving approximately 3,000 workers in hospitality, janitorial and medical support staff. During the pandemic, the hospitality industry has been especially hard-hit by the virus. Many industry workers were laid off and are readjusting to new jobs or different careers.

“With this pandemic, a lot of people lost their jobs in this industry,” HCDE Adult Education teacher Antonio Fuentes said.

As teacher of the classes, Fuentes works through customer relations topics with his adult learners, offering help through various scenarios. Throughout the week, his students practice lessons in vocabulary and pronunciation through distance learning and completed assignments. On weekday mornings, they go online to virtual learning sessions with their teacher.

Antonio Fuentes, ESL workplace teacher

The former middle school teacher of 24 years retired two years ago and began working for HCDE Adult Education.

“I love this job,” he said. “It makes my day working with struggling students who work all day and come directly from their jobs, and they are dedicated to learning.”

Twenty-one janitors and housekeepers were on his student roll last spring.

Fuentes with last year’s students

“SEIU is a great organization because they are truly helping out their members,” he said.

SEIU union organizer and ESL coordinator Ricardo Martinez made it a habit to drop by the in-person classes. The experience filled him with inspiration, joy and pride as SEIU members practiced their second language.

“During the last two years, our collaboration with the HCDE program has cultivated an incomparable enthusiasm and hope for SEIU Texas members that wasn’t there before,” he said. “For many of them, it was like a dream to have a very well-structured ESL program dedicated exclusively to them. The two teachers took the time to understand that most of the students have two jobs and families to provide for.”

As tradition would have it, on the last day of class students would proudly serve food from each of their countries to celebrate the end of the semester. Martinez loved to experience the celebration.

Student Gonzalez and teacher Fuentes knows there will come a day when they can return to the classroom for those celebrations.

“The students are so dedicated to learning,” Fuentes said. “They know by learning this language that it’s going to change their lives. They will be better for it.”

For information about the free adult education classes beginning this fall semester, go to www.hcde-texas.org/adult-education.

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