Ready to work: Seattle creates new on-ramp for immigrant English learners

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, June 01, 2016

When a group of stakeholders in Seattle identified that low-level adult English Language Learners were often struggling to succeed in community college, they took action.

The group collaborated with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, the Seattle City Council, and three city agencies — the Human Services Department, Office of Economic Development, and the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs – to develop a successful model for serving these learners that could be replicated.

After substantial research and development, the Ready to Work (RTW) program launched in 2015. RTW was created as a prototype model of English language acquisition, career development, and employment, offered in a community-based setting. The program’s goal is “to empower and support immigrants and refugees in overcoming barriers on their journey to economic stability, quality jobs and integration into life in Seattle.”  One of the key features of RTW is its commitment to track participants’ progress over a longer time frame than conventional funding streams typically allow.

What It Is: Program Details

Ready to Work combines English as a Second Language (ESL) classes with computer literacy instruction and case management to help immigrants gain job readiness skills and take steps toward economic self-sufficiency.

Classes meet four days a week, three hours a day, for a total of 12 hours per week. Instruction is provided by two Seattle Colleges and Literacy Source (a community-based adult education provider).  The initial program design also includes:

  • Managed enrollment; new participants can join the class only during quarterly enrollment periods
  • Variable length of participation; learners may stay in the class for a few weeks to 6 months or more, given continued progress
  • Community-based learning; classes are held onsite at the nonprofit Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) and at South Seattle College
  • Regular digital literacy; learning opportunities are provided daily to participants
  • Activities integrated into curriculum; for example, field trips and guest speakers are pre- and post-taught

RTW also includes several notable features that go beyond English language instruction, says Glenn Scott Davis, who serves as program and policy specialist for the city’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA). These features include:

Case Management Navigation and Support. Each quarter, participants receive an average of 10 hours of case management and $250 in support services from ACRS (e.g., discounted public transit passes; gas or grocery cards). “This is an advantage of housing the program at a multi-service nonprofit organization such as ACRS,” says Davis. “Case managers can integrate a multitude of services on-site.” The case managers also help learners to navigate to their appropriate next-step placement at Seattle Colleges or in other education and training programs. Continued case management is available to participants as an ongoing support system even after they graduate from RTW classes.

Workshop Thursdays. These regularly scheduled events include field trips to cultural resources such as the Seattle Art Museum and public libraries; visits to area employers such as Nordstrom, Starbucks, and the PCC grocery chain; and visits to pre-apprenticeship programs.  On other Thursdays, guest speakers visit the classroom to help participants learn about opportunities for job training as home care aides and child care assistants; improve their financial literacy; and find out about childcare resources. Human Resources staff from industry partners also conduct mock interviews to help participants prepare for the job market.

Contextualized instruction. “[Classes] focus on contextualized learning, with a lot of visual aids and group work,” says Davis. “It’s not necessarily [industry-specific], but career development starts from the very beginning [of the program], and we expose people to a wide range of careers.” Teachers and case managers help participants gain a deeper awareness of their existing talents and strengths – a fundamental building block of a self-directed career plan.

Who Is In the Classroom? About the Participants

RTW’s target audience is adult English Language Learners who are seeking initial employment or a better job. Participants typically score at the lowest levels (1-3) of the National Reporting System for adult education. In addition, participants’ literacy and communications skills even in their first language vary widely.

Among participants to date, the top countries of origin are Ethiopia, Vietnam, China, and Mexico. Fully two-thirds (67%) of participants have less than a high school diploma, including 28% who have not even attended high school.

In order to reach potential participants, RTW works with a wide range of community partners to publicize the program and its eligibility criteria.

Multilingual outreach flyers are available in Chinese, English, Somali, Spanish, Vietnamese and other widely spoken languages.

Participants are referred through numerous avenues, including ethnic and community based organizations, ethnic media, and other service providers.

All Together Now: Program Partners

In addition to the Seattle Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, RTW’s lead partners include: HomeSight (a nonprofit community development corporation), ACRS, Literacy Source, and two Seattle Colleges (South and Central).

Nearly two dozen other organizations, including city agencies, community and faith-based organizations, and businesses, serve as recruitment, referral or employment partners for the program.

 “The intent of Ready to Work was never to compete with existing adult education programs, but to demonstrate the efficacy of a focused, community-based model that can be replicated on a larger scale to collectively produce better outcomes for learners with lower levels of English,” says OIRA’s Davis. “What we’re doing is developing organic ties between the RTW program and those next-step trainings – not just at college, but also community-based and industry-based short-term trainings – that can help people get quality jobs sooner rather than later.”

RTW has been deliberate in building its initial partnerships with business. “We have started the process of cultivating targeted relationships across sectors with quality employers,” says Davis. “That way, even if people end up in a job that [has a lower starting wage], it will have other benefits and a work culture that is supportive of ongoing learning and mobility.” 

Paying For It: The Funding Source

The city is using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to initially support Ready to Work, with the nonprofit HomeSight serving as the project’s fiscal agent.   These funds are distributed through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to communities around the country. They are flexible in design and can be used for a wide variety of activities, including employment and training services for people with low- and moderate incomes.

Other funding sources for RTW include Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act Title I funds from the Workforce Development Council, and Washington State funds for adult education through the Seattle Colleges.

The Broader Context: Using Municipal Priorities as a Springboard

While many cities receive CDBG funds, relatively few have used them for programs serving jobseekers with limited English skills. One factor in Seattle’s approach is its ongoing Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI), the City’s commitment to eliminating racial disparities and achieving racial equity.

“The City requires all of its programs to use the racial and social justice toolkit,” explains Davis. “It really helped us be able to define and talk about the Ready to Work program…we aren’t [just] looking at this in terms of access or opportunity, but in terms of equitable outcomes.”

In part, Ready to Work was born out of the recognition that “what transforms people’s lives in the short term is a really good learning experience and a really good job experience,” adds Davis. “One of our core goals is to empower participants as self-directed learners who can make informed decisions…which is key to attaining economic stability and full integration into the life of Seattle.”

Measuring It: An Outside Evaluation

Early results from RTW are strong, says Davis: “Our attendance, retention and completion rates are very high — we think that shows what people are getting out of the program.”

But Ready to Work isn’t relying on anecdotal findings or even traditional program output data to prove its value. Rather, OIRA has contracted with the well-known firm RTI International to conduct an in-depth third-party evaluation of the program.

Key outcomes being tracked include:

  • Language Skills: Continued level gains; progression in English skills
  • Participation: Attendance in classes and workshops; quarterly course completion and attrition rates; advancement in next-quarter RTW classes and higher level non-RTW programs
  • Employment and Self Sufficiency: Initial and second job placements; progression to self-sufficiency; and retention and advancement
  • Educational Advancement: Advancement to and progression in next-level courses and/or programs and beyond
  • Continuing Participation in English Language Acquisition: Finding ways of engaging employed RTW grads in ongoing English language learning

“A big challenge for so many adult ESL programs is the lack of long-term tracking [of participant outcomes],” says Davis. “So that is what we're attempting to do here. We want to track the longer term impact of our investments in Ready to Work and determine the efficacy and replicability of the model in Seattle and elsewhere.”

The RTI report is expected to be released in Summer 2016.

Next Steps: Learning and Looking Forward

While the Ready to Work program is still in its initial phase, Davis and his colleagues have already begun to identify early lessons. A particular area of focus has been how to ensure that participants have a smooth and successful transition to their next educational or vocational step.  

A key challenge is that while participants may have the desire to seek ongoing education and training following the RTW program, most have an urgent need to find employment.  “We look for the best possible immediate job options,” says Davis. Complicating factors, he explains, is that desirable pre-apprenticeship programs in construction and childcare certification require higher levels of English proficiency. “Our ACRS case managers work with college staff to smooth the transition and place learners in the most appropriate next-level ESL class for their particular goals,” he says.

Another major learning from RTW thus far is that immigrant English language learners follow a variety of paths to economic stability.  One size does not fit all –nor should it, according to Davis.

In particular, while RTW serves participants who are pursuing educational paths leading to college certification (and eventually to the quality jobs that require those certifications), as well as participants who were professionals in their home countries and seek to return to professional jobs, the program also recognizes that the needs of other participants who are not yet equipped to take those paths.  

Going forward, Davis says, RTW will be digging deeper into the question of how to most effectively facilitate learners’ transitions to short-term, industry-focused skills training programs with strong English language supports that can lead to a quality working-class job.  “Where such programs do not exist, OIRA will work with colleagues in the City of Seattle and with our key community, adult education, college, workforce development, and employer stakeholders to nurture new programs,” he says, “in order to provide these participants with equitable pathways to quality jobs.”

In the months ahead, Davis and his colleagues will be tackling these and other questions – including big-picture questions around supportive services, social benefits, and job-creation/job-quality strategies. These structural questions go beyond any single program or institutional actor, and Seattle is looking across the country for ideas to inform its efforts, including to New York City’s Career Pathways initiative.

Tackling structural challenges is nothing new for Seattle, of course. From the citywide Race and Social Justice Initiative to the much smaller Ready to Work program itself, city officials and stakeholders are using a fresh lens to examine long-held assumptions. The picture looks promising.