Practical English courses at Denver college raise enrollment


It’s not a common word in everyday conversation, but it’s one to know if you want to work in the nursing field. Through classes at the Community College of Denver, Japanese immigrant and English learner Naoko Fujiwara, 38, learns nearly 10 to 20 such words a day.

The school’s approach differs from the English classes typically offered to immigrants. Instead of academic vocabulary, the college tries to teach students English that they will need for work.

With an accelerated and more practical curriculum, enrollments in the school’s non-credit English as a second language program grew phenomenally, from 50 to 400 students in two years.

Fujiwara was a nurse in Japan. Learning enough English to earn her nursing certification will open the door to a field desperate for workers.

She trusts skills from her previous experience; You just need the language. “If I can learn the medical terms in English,” she said, “maybe I can work.”

Jerry Kottom, who heads the school’s English as a second language department, said he has begun to reconsider the department’s role during the pandemic. Previously, the school’s program taught all students to read and write at an academic level.

“Our philosophy was that everyone wants to go to college, right?” Kottom said.

But after a few semesters, many students would lose interest. Kottom said he realized students needed the English to earn a certificate of ability or communicate better with their managers.

So the Community College of Denver overhauled its classes to try to allow students to quickly become fluent for their work while learning the basics of English.

Many students only study briefly at the university before life circumstances intervene. These include financial difficulties or looking after family here or in another country.

“They want work. They want more than minimum wage,” Kottom said. “So we said let’s take her there.”

The community program does not offer college credit like the college’s Academic English as a Second Language program. The community program’s growth has only happened through word of mouth, Kottom said.

He believes that marketing the program will expand it even further.

The school’s classes range from beginner to advanced, like the one Fujiwara attends.

The program trains workers in a variety of industries, including a construction company, restaurant workers at Casa Bonita, and a laundry service company.

In one of the beginner classes, students work on BrightView landscape attend a class on the school’s North Denver campus. The landscaping company has partnered with the school to teach its workers English so they can better communicate and develop on the job.

According to Kottom, employers participate in the program to improve communication between English and Spanish-speaking employees and to train workers for management or other jobs. In the face of acute labor shortages, companies are striving to retain and improve their employees.

The Community College of Denver has sought to improve the quality of its teaching by hiring more master’s level teachers, particularly for beginner courses.

Darcie Sebesta, an ESL teacher, said she tries to keep the lessons light. Sebesta does not keep attendance records or give grades. But students take lessons to practice with their employers.

On a recent Tuesday night, Sebesta led the students as they chatted in groups of twos and threes. Most of the students were still wearing their work clothes from back then. Sebesta had the students fill in the blanks in sentences with the pronouns his, hers, mine and its.

BrightView Landscaping’s Eleazar Celis, Jorge Dominguez and Cipriano Celis study English at Denver Community College. The trio recently practiced speaking English together on a Tuesday.
Jason Gonzales/Chalkbeat

Sebesta said she wanted to take away the students’ love of learning. Since the students are at the most basic level, the lessons are minimally related to work situations. She said she will build more job-related vocabulary.

“I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” she said. “But they have a lot of devotion to something that isn’t really required.”

Fujiwara has a better grasp of English, and instructor Agnieszka Ramirez said learning a nurse’s vocabulary can be challenging. The school also offers English classes for students who wish to enter early childhood education and manufacturing. School officials plan to add information technology classes.

Like Fujiwara, some are being pushed to re-enter the medical field. Others are trying to find a way into the field, Ramirez said. Everyone is highly motivated and the lessons often go beyond the planned time.

“I have a lot of admiration for these students,” said Ramirez, who also studied English as an adult. “You are unbelievable. But it’s also a lot of pressure. I always think what could we do better? It’s a new program and this is only the second semester we’re doing it.”

From the around 400 pages of the textbook for certified nursing assistants, the students learn dozens of new words every week. An online platform called EnGen complements the lesson.

Fujiwara said before the program she didn’t know where to turn to pursue a career in nursing again. After completing her training as a nurse and gaining professional experience, she would later like to become a state-certified nurse or a state-recognized practical nurse.

“It’s my dream. I want to go back to work and help people,” said Fujiwara. “But right now it’s more the opposite – people are helping me. Hopefully one day I can give something back.”

Jason Gonzalez is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado Legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado is a partner of open campus about university coverage. Contact Jason at

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