Rosie’s Place debuts Women’s Education Center

by Kate Vander Wiede
Managing Editor
Tuesday Mar 9, 2010
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New building provides better classroom environment and expanded class offerings for poor and homeless women in Boston

World atlases decorated one room, a globe rested on another’s windowsill, and pictures of smiling and laughing students adorned the hallways.

While these touches seem reminiscent of a traditional school, the March 5 Open House for the Women’s Education Center at Rosie’s Place on Harrison Avenue revealed that the school was anything but traditional. Serving the poor and homeless women of Boston since 1974, the organization’s English as a Second Language (ESL) and General Educational Development (GED) classes that will continue in the new center are only two of the many services offered, which include free health care, seven-days-a-week lunches and dinners, and temporary and permanent housing.

While the latter services have been around since Rosie’s Place’s conception, the education program began only six years ago, when some of the staff discovered the reason many of their programs were underutilized.

Ellen Braverman, who as the current director of the Adult Education Program was greeting arriving guests, explained that the reason behind this underutilization was simple.

"We realized that even though the services were free, [the women] couldn’t read to sign up for the services or write to sign their name," she said.

To address this problem, Rosie’s Place began teaching 13 women how to read and write English in the dining room.

Six years later, Braverman estimated 500 students have taken advantage of the individual tutoring and three ESL and five GED classes that they offered. Each of these students had different goals, ranging from wanting to attend parent-teacher conferences to filling out job applications to learning how to communicate with her doctor. Others wanted to attend college.

The program, which has never turned anyone away, has seen many reach these goals. But Braverman admitted that while they’d seen much success, the dining room (and official classroom) has limited them.

"We had the constraints of the dining room," she said, listing off additional options the new facility allows them. "Now we can do afternoons, we can do evenings, we can do weekends. It just quadruples the number of classes we can offer."

Michele May, who has worn many hats at Rosie’s Place over the years, had even more praise. May, a volunteer teacher for the past six years, explained that four classes being taught simultaneously in the dining room presented a myriad of issues. Clanging pots and pans, noise from other classes, and the lack of a real classroom often made teaching difficult.

But with the four-story center, replete with eight classrooms, each with eight desks, a whiteboard and ample natural light, May had already seen a difference in the classes, which started in January.

"I substituted for a class this week where someone’s phone rang during class, and the other students looked at them like, ’Turn your phone off. I’m in school, I don’t want this interruption.’ In the [dining room] it was just one more noise." May explained. "[The women] really feel like they are in school here, and I’ve noticed that the attendance has improved. They are just thrilled to be here."

This attitude has also spread to the volunteer teachers, who May noted have shown a renewed vigor since the construction. May and Women’s Education Center Coordinator Nicole Bhatia also worked on revamping the school’s curriculum during construction, making it more practical, structured and targeted toward their school’s unique demographic.

After creating more accurate placement tests and better defined class goals, May and Bhatia turned to the materials being used in the classroom. After looking at the prepackaged ESL textbooks they were using, the women found that the activities and vocabulary within them were unrealistic for their students.

"The prepackaged ESL programs were aimed toward educated women," May said, citing the unfamiliarity of terms like ’mechanical engineer’ and fill-in-the-blank and matching activities to Rosie’s Place students. "What we did is try to really make sure that the vocabulary in our curriculum was relevant to the women and that the way the curriculum was structured would be slowly teaching basic classroom skills."

Lori LaDuke, Rosie’s Place’s Director of Communications, said she thinks the new center sets her organization’s education program apart from traditional adult education programs.

"The traditional ways don’t necessarily work for the women here. So we try to figure out beyond the language barriers, what are the additional barriers that are holding them back from learning?" she said.

These barriers-such as living in an isolated and marginalized community, facing poverty and hunger, and lacking language skills-make the women’s accomplishments even more remarkable to Braverman.

"Their strength and courage, and to be so brave to come here and not speak a word of the language, it’s just amazing to me," she said.

Even more amazing is the success many students have achieved-some have gone on to successful jobs or community college, while others are more able to communicate with the world around them. But one of the most important things these women have found hasn’t been in textbooks, LaDuke explained, but in each other.

"There is a sense of community with the students they are in classes with and they feel like they can learn in a safe environment. And that is really important," she said.

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