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April 2008
Volume 3, Number 4

Central Piedmont Community College Addresses Training
Needs for Non-English Speakers

Linda Griffith

Moving to a new country, looking for a new job, and seeking educational opportunities can seem daunting for anyone. Add the fact that English isn’t your native language, and the challenge becomes even greater. More than 14 percent of the residents of Charlotte, North Carolina, are facing these obstacles.

Fortunately for Charlotte, Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) is the number one provider of English as a Second Language (ESL) services in the region and is tackling this growing community need head-on. With the burgeoning influx of non-English speakers to the area, CPCC’s Adult ESL Program facilitates learning for over 4,000 students per year. A desire to focus on these students and mainstream their assimilation into the community and workforce has resulted in the creation of CPCC’s Technical Career Ladders (TCL) Program. TCL supports this growing demographic and assures complete integration into society, both professionally and personally.

“The program was created so that we could meet the needs of the growing immigrant population,” explained Gilda Rubio-Festa, CPCC Director of International Community and Outreach. “We offer it as a viable way for them to improve their technical skills, in conjunction with bettering their English. It was also created in response to employers’ needs. There is a big shortage of technically trained workers in this region,” she said.

Working with CPCC instructional department chairs, the TCL program takes existing programs of study and makes them more accessible to ESL students. TCL makes the programs authentic both within and beyond the classroom, using real-life partnerships to apply acquired skills into mainstream contexts. The student is supported in an overall capacity, and his or her smooth transition into the community and workforce is a top priority.

According to Rubio-Festa, “It’s not as though we are translating the course. It’s more like we are dissecting the technical career areas and saying to the students, ‘these are the English skills you will need in order to succeed in these particular courses.’ The learning process is thus twofold: practical application and supportive-language development.”

The six technical careers CPCC currently offers in the TCL program include Applied Electrical Technology, Print Shop Technician, Basic Machining Skills, Basic Motor Sports Certificate, Fast Track Carpentry, and Basic Office Technology.

Rubio-Festa estimates that currently 30 TCL students are registered in different programs. “Applied Electrical Technology is without a doubt the first to fill up,” she stated. “There are so many areas and opportunities in the world of construction, and this was the pilot program for CPCC. It offers the skills an employee would need to get an entry level job.”

Rubio-Festa described the unique approach CPCC has taken toward expanding this program and ensuring that it reaches beyond the classroom walls. One of the major factors affecting program success is the implementation of evening classes. Out of a pool of 110 students tested in 2007 for the ESL courses, 78 percent had full-time jobs and 62 percent were between the ages of 30 and 49, frequently with family and financial responsibilities that had to be met during the day.

“The technical career programs hadn’t organized classes in the evening before, but we realized very quickly that most of the students enrolling had jobs during the day,” said Rubio-Festa.

Benefits have been twofold as the ESL students are integrated with native speakers whose schedules also dictate evening classes.

A further adjustment, new to the college, was “approaching the class as a cohort,” asserted Rubio-Festa. “All the TCL students take the same class together. We give them a specific schedule so they move through as a group. This is useful as they form learning communities and have each other for support.”

The program operates around four major components:

  • Outreach and Recruitment
  • Assessment and Registration
  • Academic Support
  • Follow-Up

Outreach and Recruitment. Instrumental in achieving this inclusive penetration is marketing the program in a culturally and linguistically specific way. CPCC’s marketing department created a media campaign to generate interest through local media outlets including Latino newspapers, and a special TCL website targeting the immigrant audience. “Instrumental in achieving this inclusive penetration is marketing the program in a culturally and linguistically specific way,” indicated Rubio-Festa.

Assessment and Registration. An ESL-specific assessment guided by discipline chairs includes a standardized reading assessment, an informal writing sample, an educational background questionnaire, and an interview with the discipline chair. Rubio-Festa emphasized that ESL students are supported throughout the registration process, ensuring that unfamiliarity with the language and the system does not hamper their path to enrolling. Special care is taken to assure that applicants are aware of services available to them within the college community such as tutoring, online services, and financial aid.

“We looked at ways we could bring these students in and give them support on all sides, thus integrating them within the college community,” stated Rubio-Festa. “Historically the most challenging aspect has been shepherding students through the registration process.” The above methods help streamline the process and escalate successful completion of the requirements.

Academic Support: Authentic Curriculum. CPCC uses the English for Specific Purposes (ESP) approach, which places the learner and his or her needs first. The learner is defined as someone whose need is “the reason for which the student is learning English.” (Dudley-Evans & St. John, 1998, p. 3). A designated full-time ESL instructor works exclusively on developing the courses to ensure that the student’s goals of obtaining a job, passing licensure exams, or pursuing further education are met.

Rubio-Festa points out that previously ESP was more widely used for academic or professional careers. “Few people use this approach for something more occupational,” she said. CPCC has adapted the practice and implemented it to support these technical career paths.

Follow-Up. CPCC arranges a graduation ceremony recognizing students’ achievements. For certificate programs, students attend a job fair focusing on technical career occupations. An exit interview tracks students’ future plans. A close level of guidance is maintained throughout the course ensuring that students are kept abreast of employment opportunities.

Applicants enrolled in the short-term certificate programs are eligible for JumpStart Scholarships to assist students with tuition, fees, books, and supplies. All of the TCL courses are defined as JumpStart courses. JumpStart scholarships are targeted at underemployed and unemployed persons, as well as those desiring to change career fields or learn new skills.

Rubio-Festa sees growing this venture by opening up more certificates to ESL candidates. She also plans to provide a JumpStart Job Fair showcasing employment opportunities focusing strictly on technical careers. The growth and success of the program ultimately rests on faculty involvement, and Rubio-Festa views educating faculty to the needs of ESL students as being critical. “The more these students are integrated into the mainstream, the more teachers will become aware of their needs and respond accordingly,” she said.

The TCL program is still in its infancy, but under the stewardship of Rubio-Festa and her dedicated staff, every effort is being made to ensure it follows through on the college’s stated mission of being a national leader in workforce development. CPCC is continually refining the programs it offers to ensure that the changing demographic needs of the community are addressed. The goal of TCL is access to education that leads to a successful career for this growing population.


Dudley-Evans, T. & St. John, M. (1998). Developments in ESP: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Cambridge University Press.

This article was written by Linda Griffith, a journalism student at CPCC who is also interning in the Marketing Services/Community Relations department at CPCC.

Cynthia Wilson, Editor