Sahra Ahmed of Minneapolis has been an adult student learner at the Franklin Learning Center on and off since the birth of her first child 10 years ago. Ahmed now has three other children, ages 7, 5 and 21/2 , but she still makes time to visit the center as often as she can each week, sometimes for up to three hours at a time, to work with a volunteer tutor.
"Mostly, my goal is to get better with my writing," said Ahmed, who came to the United States from Somalia 10 years ago, received a GED this year and plans to study child development. She often sits with her kids at night to do her homework while they do theirs, and wants to better master her reading and writing skills so she can help them learn, too.
The Learning Center, in the lower level of the Franklin Library in Minneapolis, was launched in 1988. At that time, most of its students were U.S.-born, and primarily working on basic literacy skills or studying for a GED. Although the one-on-one format remains the same, the learning population at the center has changed dramatically, said senior librarian and coordinator Nancy Thornbury.
"Approximately 80 percent of our adult learners are from Somalia," she said. Students today represent 20 countries and range in age from 18 to 70. "When we started, we also used to have more men come here for tutoring, but now 70 percent of our students are women."
Students work with volunteer tutors on a first-come, first-served basis -- on a typical day, there can be anywhere from 35 to 50 students. Many volunteers are college students, and there is also a large percentage of retirees. Each student- tutor team spends time going through worksheets and texts focused on spelling, phonics and writing, as well as math.
Beginning students will often have literacy skills comparable to those of a first- or second-grader, noted Thornbury.
"Many speak English fairly well, but the phonics and the writing can be a stumbling block," she said.
A next step
After Jill Seinola of Edina retired last year, she knew she wanted to find a meaningful volunteer opportunity. After her first session at the Learning Center several months ago, she told her husband, "This is exactly what I wanted to do."
During a recent Wednesday morning session, Seinola worked with 23-year-old Abdishakur Moalim, who arrived in the Twin Cities three months ago from Somalia and just started coming to the center. He's working to earn his GED.
"Math is easy for me. Reading is between hard and easy," said Moalim, who spends time at the center every day.
Working with students is "a very evolutionary process," said Seinola, who keeps an English-Somali dictionary handy in case she and a student have a communication quandary. She occasionally relies on pictures to help students better decipher some of the reading material.
Citizenship and beyond
The Learning Center also helps prepare adult student learners for U.S. citizenship tests, which have been especially popular in the months leading up to the November election. Ahmed Ahmed (no relation to Sahra Ahmed) first came to the center as a student in 2006 and became a staff member the following year. He frequently works with student learners preparing for the oral and written citizenship exam and in June, he became one of the 185 individuals from the center who have passed the test so far this year.
"When I first came here, I knew a little bit of English," said Ahmed Ahmed, who received a liberal arts degree in 2011 from Minneapolis Community and Technical College. "I came here every day and would get together with other students to study."
Asked about the wide range of ages of student learners -- several are in their 50s and 60s -- Ahmed said he believes that for many, there is "a good competition" that brings them to Franklin so they can hone their English skills.
"They don't want to be left behind when their friends are learning to read, or taking their driving test, or the citizenship test," he said. "Without learning how to read English, they can't do any of those things."
Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.