The Lyndale Neighborhood Association has been teaching people how to speak English and master basic computer skills in its neighborhood for many years.

“I think we're the only neighborhood that has an education program,” Executive Director of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association Sami Smetana said.

The English courses are funded through State and federal funding dedicated to adult education. In 2011, the neighborhood organization started exploring how to find education classes and found success through the Metro East Consortium of Schools.

The English classes, started in 2011, have been going on much longer than the computer skills classes, but both are needed in the neighborhood that is home to immigrants and refugees.

The English classes, each of which have around 30 students, are run by Sam Monroe. Volunteers assist Monroe; some even teach the classes. The free classes, which run throughout the week, require about 25 volunteers to run smoothly.

With both the English and computer basics classes, the teachers and volunteers are working with adults who are often new to Minneapolis and the United States. According to Monroe, the majority of students are Latino and East African, with a few students from Ecuador, Ukraine, and Afghanistan.

“The classroom environment that we want … it's creating a space that makes students feel very comfortable, particularly if they're new refugees or immigrants, and just making sure that the way we teach is catering to their needs, and facilitating their adjustment to this country,” Monroe said.

Monroe and volunteers follow the English Unlocked curriculum, which focuses on learning English based on adult life skills, such as entering the workforce.

“The effects are very immediate,” Monroe said of the work he does with the education program. “Not only the students, but the volunteers I think there's a sense of accomplishment…there’s a lot of daily meaning.”

Now, imagine learning English on top of learning how to operate a computer. And learning all of the terminology that comes with that. A mouse is suddenly a tool that helps you scroll. But a scroll is not a long piece of paper, it’s a movement that happens on a screen. And a screen is not on a door, it’s the bright box that looks like a television in front of you.

In 2021, the Lyndale Neighborhood Association received a grant to bring digital literacy classes to Horn Towers, a public housing property, at 3121 Pillsbury Ave. The year-long course was led by Grayson Betz, then an Americorp member. The students who attended were Somali elders living at Horn Towers who couldn’t speak English well. They, therefore, couldn't follow the digital literacy instructions well, so the class morphed more into an English class. Betz realized that the existing digital literacy curriculum assumed a very basic level of computer skills and a fairly advanced level of English skills that his students didn’t have.

So, Betz started making a computer basics course curriculum that addressed this learning gap.

“[It] is called ELDES, English Learner Digital Essential Skills, which standardizes the components you need to get to Northstar,” the curriculum his students couldn’t initially follow, Betz said.

Grayson Betz at Hosmer Library, leading an information session about the computer basics course he runs through the Lyndale Neighborhood Association. Photo courtesy of the Lyndale Neighborhood Association

Betz’s curriculum includes teaching English words that were not covered in the Northstar Digital Literacy curriculum. As Betz started noticing the gaps in the curriculum, his basic computers courses at Horn Towers were split into two classes: one for advanced English speakers and one for students with basic English skills.

“They made some really great progress,” Betz said of his students, who attended class for a full year, twice a week. “There's such a huge need for [these classes]. And I'm seeing it over and over and over again, how important this work is, and how there's really nothing out there right now for this demographic.”

Additional funding is allowing Betz to offer the computer basics class at Hosmer Library, which is open to the public. The class starts Jan. 19 and runs through May. The class meets weekly on Fridays, 1 - 3 p.m.

Right now, the Lyndale Neighborhood Association’s English language classes led by Monroe at Incarnation Catholic Church need additional volunteers to support the full slate of classes. The next slate of classes will ideally run Monday-Thursday 2- 5 p.m. starting Jan. 22.

“We could not do the work to help the community without [volunteers],” Smetana said. “We are in need of more volunteer support in order to open with our planned four days per week schedule.”

The volunteers that work with Monroe in the English classes said they get as much out of it as they give back – a cliché that is worth emphasizing, especially when the volunteers have worked with the program for years.

Nancy McCall, a volunteer for the last 10 years, said she leaves the English classes feeling uplifted by the students.

“[They] are always so appreciative of our efforts to help them learn our crazy, complicated language,” McCall said.

Volunteer Eric Hagen said he has made long-term friends with people in the classes, and comes away with pride and gratitude “knowing that we have not only helped our students transition into a new culture, community and language but knowing and seeing that the community is better for the work we do.” Hagen has been an English class volunteer for over eight years.

Betz also welcomes volunteers to his computer basics course. “You don’t need to know very much about computers,” Betz said. If you know how to turn on a computer, you are already a big help to the people in the class, Betz insists. “I think the term digital literacy [keeps] the volunteers away.”

People interested in learning more about volunteering for Lyndale Neighborhood Association’s English classes can contact Sam Monroe at education@lyndale.org. For those interested in learning more about volunteering for the organization’s computer basics course, contact Grayson Betz at grayson@lyndale.org.