A Conversation with Amie Cressman of Notre Dame Education Center
Interview by Jeanne Dasaro
The Notre Dame Education Center (NDEC) has been a place of hope for South Boston residents since it opened its doors in 1860. Started by a group of nuns called the Sisters of Notre Dame, the center began as a free high school for girls. While the school closed in 1992, the sisters remained committed to meeting the needs of their community. Using what resources were available to them, they gathered together teachers and volunteers and opened their doors to all as an adult education center.
NDEC has continued to pursue its mission by providing community-based, comprehensive adult learning and literacy programs underscored by the values of respect, understanding, and quality services. Amie Cressman has been involved with NDEC for over five years. She has worked two years as NDEC’s Notre Dame AmeriCorps Member helping to facilitate courses and now serves as NDEC’s Program Director, overseeing four programs at NDEC, ensuring program funding, and making sure staff and student needs are met.
NPi: What does your organization do? What services do you provide to the community.
Amie Cressman: We have four programs. ESOL, which stands for English Speakers of Other Languages–we use ESOL, instead of ESL, because most of our students are learning English as their third or fourth language, rather than their second. There are four levels of ESOL, and each class develops skills in speaking, listening, reading, writing, and American culture, which explains how to navigate the systems here. We have a literacy program, reading, writing, and math. People can enter in as beginning readers up to the GED level. Most people enroll in the literacy program because they want their GED. They are getting their GED for many reasons: to get a better job, or for personal reasons like being a good example for their children. We also have a distance-learning program of online classes for those students who aren’t able to attend class because they work non-traditional hours or they’re on the waiting list with an ABE/ESOL program in the state of Massachusetts. This also allows them to learn at their own pace and convenience. We’re the only state funded hub in Massachusetts, but we do have five other partners who can accept students on our behalf. It’s a new and exciting program.
The fourth program is the high school diploma program, which is an alternative high school program. Students who have completed at least 10th grade can come take the class they need to complete their high school diploma and get a diploma from Cathedral High School. I see it as a “second chance” program since they are so close to graduating. This is important because GEDs were considered equivalent to high school diplomas, but now they’re not. Some branches of the military will accept a GED, but most won’t. Many of these students want to go directly on to a four-year university, as opposed to the traditional GED path, which includes a stop in community college.
NPi: What communities do you serve? What does the make-up of your classes look like?
AC: Now that we’re in the heart of South Boston, situated between two housing developments, Old Colony and D Street, we see more South Boston students. We’ve seen an increase in students from Southie since we moved to our new location. People who live in Southie don’t like to leave Southie, and the Broadway T stop is at the edge of the neighborhood. Most of our students are from South Boston and Dorchester. Our biggest ethnic communities are native born Americans, Haitian, Chinese, Albanian, and many students are Dominican and Somali as well. We have a good mix racially: 20% Asian, 27% black, 21% Latino, and 22% white. Ages of students vary from 16 to 70 years old, however, the alternative high school program is only for students 16 to 21.
NPi: How is the work you do here different from other organizations in the Adult Education and ESOL fields?
AC: Part of what is different is the heart of the organization and the mission. Many people come here because they are drawn by the mission and by the Sisters of Notre Dame, who worked without pay for many years and are committed to the mission. There are also Notre Dame Americorps members who are very community-minded and attracted to the Notre Dame AmeriCorps Mission to empower vulnerable people through education.
Also, there’s the fact that we have four different internal programs, which means we can do referrals. We had someone come to the high school program and she was upset because she didn’t finish the 10th grade, but then we transfered her to the literacy program so that she could get her GED. There are many internal referrals: ESOL level 4, to GED, to distance learning. I think another thing that distinguishes us is our support system and holistic approach. We look at all the aspects of our clients’ lives. We are concerned about education, but we also offer support services as well. We have a volunteer coordinator who gets tutors for students if they need extra help. We also ask students to be tutors, and this is a form of empowerment. We have a job counselor who works with students on resuming writing, job searches, training placements, and interviewing skills. Many of our ESOL students arrive here with university degrees from their own countries, so we help them translate them and their credentials. We also have an immigration case manager who helps with all immigration issues. She teaches a citizenship course, but immigration issues aren’t simply about citizenship; there are issues of sponsorship, bringing family members to the US, seeking asylum, work permits–anything related to immigration.
My opinion on immigration is: it’s so hard to leave your country logistically and personally, that if you make it to this country, you’ve demonstrated you’re a driven and dedicated person. Education has always come very easy for me, and I feel very lucky. But for some of our American students, the education system has failed them. It may be because they have a learning disability, mental illness, or didn’t get enough support at home, and so they come to us. I read something the other day that said Boston Public Schools spends on average $13,888 per student in the school system. In our GED program we’re spending only $1,700 per student and getting students for whom the public school system didn’t work. Yet, they achieve great success through our programs. Last year we had 39 graduates (22 High School Diploma and 17 GED). We met every Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Performance Standard: attendance, retention, learner gains, and student goals.
NPi: Can you talk about NDEC’s approach to ending adult illiteracy as well as its approach to working with under-educated adults?
AC: At NDEC, we believe in mutuality of teaching and learning. We are all adults; we are equals. Therefore, we need to empower students both in the classroom and outside the classroom by giving them a voice regarding their own education and how they want it to impact their lives. Not only are we an educational institution, but we realize our students face many barriers to their education. In order for our students to find success, they need support. So we provide tutors, job counseling, immigration case management, and educational counseling. We provide workshops on financial literacy, workers’ rights, and health screenings. Finally, as our vision states, “participants will use a form of critical social analysis as their tool for understanding the complexities of the world and responding to them.” In other words, we are constantly providing opportunities for reflection and evaluation so that students can see their part in the world around them. I think if more organizations took a holistic approach and provided more support services, then the quality of our educational services would increase.
NPi: Have you ever done outreach to these other organizations to share the knowledge and increase the social impact? Would you consider it?
AC: We have a lot of collaborations. The South Boston Family Center is up the street, and together we’re the only ABE (Adult Basic Education)/ESOL programs in South Boston. We do a lot to assist with employment and making sure our services are aligned with other services offered in South Boston. Also, in terms of Boston-wide and South Boston-wide community planning, we work with the Boston Association of Nonprofits and do service referrals for students. If we don’t offer a program, for example basic reading, we can connect them with another program that offers those services, and by doing so, we’ve increased our accessibility.
NPi: What impact does NDEC have in the community? What are some of the successes you’ve experienced while doing this work?
AC: It’s big that we’re here in South Boston since many of the ABE programs have closed. We continue to get more South Boston residents as students; we’ve had 250 since we started in 1992. Last year, a graduate from the GED program wanted to give back to her community because of her experience here. She’s at Roxbury Community College now getting her degree in social work and she’s volunteering at this amazing program at the Dry Dock where they teach students from the Department of Youth Services (DYS) how to build boats. They’re increasing the number of people of color in this field and giving DYS kids a second chance and a skill… She’s volunteering, and the DYS kids really need someone to help them.
Another success is an ESOL student from 1996, Edouard Zobinou, who is now our Finance Manager after attending university. Our newest board member received his diploma from here and has gone on to Year Up, another organization we collaborate with. Another student is now in the International Program at Brandeis. He’s come back to serve on the board of directors here. We’ve also had several Lost Boys of Sudan come through our program. One is at Bunker Hill Community College and another is studying computer science at UMass-Boston. This is an impressive story, since their lives and educations were completely interrupted when they became child soldiers. You know you’re really making an impact because now they’re able to send kids to school in Uganda and Kenya because they’re improving their own lives. There’s a ripple effect.
NPi: What are some of the obstacles/challenges you are facing?
AC: Funding is definitely one, and that’s true of any non-profit. The field of adult education and ESOL are under-funded and forgotten sectors. When people stumble upon Adult Education, they love it since in the field of education, K-12 is the only education we think of. Adult education is very different. With the current economy, students either don’t have jobs, or they have to work regardless of what shift their boss gives them because they need the money, which means they can’t come to school. We’re seeing a shift in the population; many more teenagers are in our programs, which tells us something about the school system. There are 20,000 people on the waiting list for ABE and ESOL programs in the State of Massachusetts. 5,000 are waiting for ESOL, and 5,000 are waiting for GED, and those are just the ones that are signed up and waiting. That doesn’t take into account all of the people who haven’t yet signed up for services. It’s a challenge to provide services for that many people.
NPi: Can you elaborate on the waiting list policy? How does it work? How does someone get on the list?
AC: The State of Massachusetts has its own waiting list, and we have our own waiting list. People come in and register in the main office and they are put on the waiting list for whichever program they sign up for. Then they have to come back in to be tested. For GED, they only have to wait a few months. For ESOL, the wait is six months to two years. We give priority to people from South Boston, as well as those who are already students here.
NPi: What have you learned by doing this work? What have you learned as an organization?
AC: Personally, I’m in awe of the people that we serve. I love being in a place where we’re all equals, and it’s so neat to have so many different people in a classroom. Amazing things happen when you have so many different people together. In my first class, there was a homeless man, someone who just got out of prison, a 16-year-old single mother, a girl with a mental illness, two Sudanese refugees, and a few people from Haiti. Get them together and amazing things happen. People shouldn’t surprise me, but I am continually surprised.
Organizationally, it’s been powerful recognizing how students need our support services. One of the things I’d like to see is more counseling for students. There are so many other forces acting on their lives. We have someone to help them with jobs and immigration, and someone to help a little with healthcare, childcare, and housing. For these adults who wear so many hats and face so many challenges, it’s important to put all these support services in place.
NPi: Where could you use help as an organization?
AC: We need more volunteers, tutors for individuals and small groups, event support, social workers, and a mental health counselor. We have students with so many different needs, it would be great to meet those needs. We need more people with a background in counseling. We’d also like for the public, especially our neighbors in South Boston, to know about all the things that happen here–about all the people from different countries in the same neighborhood.
NPi: Is there a service you’d like for your organization to provide that you aren’t currently providing?
AC: Mental health counseling. We’ve had gang fights on our front steps, a student threatening suicide. We work with students who are victims of violence or don’t have the support they need at home and students with mental illness. We’d like to make sure these students get what they need.
NPi: What keeps you coming to work every day?
AC: The students. You can never feel sorry for yourself. These students have been through so much and never complain. I’m not saying this from a “Oh, aren’t they great–the poor who come here,” perspective. I try really hard not to use specific labels to prevent putting people on another level. It’s definitely the students who keep me coming to work every day. They are so amazing.
NPi: What is a lesson that you would pass on to other leaders? Other people looking to get involved in their community?
AC: Since students constantly surprise you, it’s important to keep an open mind and be willing to learn from them. This empowers them. I think in social services, it’s very easy to just take the pen and fill out the form for someone. That attitude is just so wrong.
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