Fabbioli Cellars was busy with employees hard at work on a recent afternoon. One man broke a sweat building a deck off the barrel cellar, while another chopped and neatly stacked wood, and a woman tidied up the tasting room in preparation for a weekend of thirsty visitors.
And at the far north end of the property, a language lesson unfolded beneath the shade of an Asian pear tree.
“What do you do with the pears?” Sarah Ali asked her students, 20-year-old Lupe and 25-year-old Arturo.
“Make…I don’t know how to say in English,” Arturo said.
“Yes,” Lupe confirmed.
“Excellent,” Ali said with a nod.
Similar scenes are playing out more and more throughout the county as part of Loudoun Literacy Council’s new teaching strategy to deliver language lessons to the workplace. The nonprofit organization started in 1980 to tutor recently arrived adult immigrants, and shortly after, it offered free or low-cost English courses in an effort to arm them with basic literacy skills. But it’s typically provided lessons to 10 to 20 students at a time in a classroom setting. Now, they’re finding there is a better way.
“It’s one thing to teach vocab in a room. It’s another thing to walk with them in their job—in their day-to-day environment,” said Ali, the organization’s new executive director.
Loudoun Literacy pairs a volunteer tutor with one or two students. They coordinate schedules and meet at the job site weekly. The tutors ask the students to walk them through their typical work day and explain each of their tasks in English.
“This is a customized as it gets,” Ali said. In the previous model where the lessons were taught to larger groups in a classroom setting, some students knew little to no English and others were nearly proficient. “So some are getting lost in class and others who know enough to get by are bored. … Really, we’re finding that the effective way is to have much smaller settings with tutors.”
What’s more, the new structure has reduced the attrition rate among teachers and students. “You think you’d get this economy of scale when you have one class and 20 students, but actually you don’t. … Finding a teacher who is willing to commit to one evening a week is really hard,” Ali said.
It’s easier for a tutor and a couple of students to coordinate schedules than to pin down a volunteer teacher and a full class of students. The program has 16 students enrolled and another 32 on the waiting list. It has 14 volunteer mentors, but could use another 40 or more.
The idea started as a pilot program two years ago at Loudoun Hunger Relief. Mentor Carol Young, a United Airlines pilot from Purcellville, started working with Justo, who’s worked as a driver at Loudoun Hunger Relief for 14 years. Justo’s English has improved enough in that time that he’s mastered a 100-question practice test ahead of taking the U.S. citizenship exam.
“That’s what spurred our interest to pursue this more, when we saw that it was working so well. The tutors were staying, the students were staying,” Ali said.
Young now has two students at Loudoun Hunger Relief, since longtime warehouse worker Ismael enrolled late last year. He is also working toward his citizenship. That’s the goal of many Loudoun Literacy clients, and knowing English is a must to fill out a 20-page application form. “It’s a major hurdle, and it’s so daunting some don’t even try,” Ali said.
Loudoun Hunger Relief covers the cost of the class—$150 for 20 hours of training for the pair—and allows Justo and Ismael to meet with Young over their lunch break and about an hour beyond their break.
Jennifer Montgomery, executive director of Loudoun Hunger Relief, considers the course professional development worth investing in.
“It has a trickle-down effect,” she said. “If your employees are happy, they continue to do a good job and your organization continues to thrive. And if our organization does well, that’s more in our community who are being served. It all starts with one person wanting to come to work and wanting to do a good job.”
Doug Fabbioli, who owns Fabbioli Cellars with his wife Colleen, said covering the cost of the classes, and allowing his employees to take a couple of hours off half-way through their work day for the lessons was a no-brainer. Improved English skills not only helps him communicate with his staff but it also helps his employees reach their full potential.
“It’s a skill that really helps my business, but it also helps them go further,” he said.
“I want to give our field team more opportunities to integrate with the culture here but I also want to help them have the skills to go further,” Fabbioli said.
Two Fabbioli employees—Rebecca and Rosa—have been enrolled in the Adult Literacy Program since April, and Arturo and Lupe started just three weeks ago.
“My English is better already,” Lupe said recently with ease and a smile.
She works in the vineyard and hops field for much of her week, pulling weeds, pruning, and harvesting. And part of her week she works in the winery’s kitchen, preparing food to be paired with wines produced on the property. “That’s my favorite because I hear and try to practice English,” she said. “In the future, I want to be a teacher. I’d love to teach English.”
Fabbioli sees management potential in several of his employees. They’re smart, hard working, and already passing on what they know to staff who are new to the wine business. That final piece of the puzzle, being able to speak and read English, will equip them for leadership positions. Specifically of Arturo, Fabbioli said, “I saw in him someone I could teach and trust with a lot of the details. He is learning to be a farm manager, and these [classes] will help him get there.”
Loudoun Literacy’s goal with the new model is to deliver English lessons to as many people as possible, something its leaders see as an economic development tool. Ali noted that Loudoun County has services for individuals who are unemployed, homeless or in immediate need, but few for the working poor.
“There’s this group of very promising, hard-working, motivated people who, if they learned English a little bit better, could advance themselves and truly become self-sufficient. This is huge,” she said, adding that these are individuals are otherwise at risk of falling into that sector that needs immediate services. “This model could really change lives.”
Loudoun Literacy will soon begin job-site literacy training for seven employees at JK Moving Services. It also holds weekly English classes for housekeepers at Salamander Resort & Spa in Middleburg, for congregants at All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Sterling, and for parents of children enrolled in All Ages Read Together’s preschool program.
Loudoun Literacy is looking for more business and organization partners to help serve more people wanting to learn English. The program is $100 for one student and $150 for two students and includes 20 hours of tutoring.
To serve as a tutor, volunteers do not need to have any teaching experience or know any language other than English. They will need to undergo a two-and-a-half-hour training course. “Anybody who is compassionate and wants to help should definitely give it a shot,” Ali said.
Interested tutors can attend a training from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26. Learn more at loudounliteracy.org or call 703- 777-2205.