Alex Perez lost both his job and his home when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico nearly two years ago, so after power was still not restored to his hometown months after the storm hit, he headed north with his girlfriend last year.
The 43-year-old graphic designer initially struggled to find a job in both Florida and later Tennessee because of his limited ability to speak English, even though the Spanish-speaking designer easily read English in his previous job. To help Perez find work and adjust to his new home in Chattanooga, Perez started taking lessons at the Chattanooga School of Language and last month was able to use those skills to land a job as a window installer at Safelite Auto Glass Glass.
"I love Chattanooga and my dream is to soon buy a home here," Perez said last week. "But I know I needed to become more fluent in English and this school has really helped me to do that. This is an amazing school and it has really helped me a lot."
Perez is among a growing number of students that the 8-year-old foreign language school is serving through its expanding English as Second Language (ESL) courses. Laurie Stevens started the Chattanooga School of Language in 2011 after working at LaPaz Chattanooga for more than three years and seeing the need for such a school. She said the foreign language school has rapidly grown to include classes in 17 different languages.
But aided by a state grant for ESL training for adults, the school is adding a number of ESL classes this year targeted at those coming to Chattanooga speaking languages other than English.
The courses are offered both at the Chattanooga School of Language office and classroom facility on North Access Road in Hixson but also at work sites, including Amazon where Perez used to work and where his girlfriend still does.
"A big part of our grant from the state (Department of Labor and Workforce Development) is to provide ESL programs for workforce training skills," Stevens said. "That will help to either get future workers ready with needed skills or to improve the language skills of those already on the job."
Stevens started the foreign language school as an outgrowth of her Spanish studies at Berry College in Rome, where she developed an appreciation for other languages and cultures during a 3-month study in Costa Rica.
The Chattanooga School for Languages began offering just three languages — Spanish, German and French — with a couple of teachers and herself doing the instruction while working another full-time job for the first five years of the school's existence. But the school has rapidly grown and capitalized on Chattanooga's growing international presence, which has attracted more than $6 billion of investment and over 5,000 direct and indirect jobs from foreign direct investment in the region.
But for all of its growing international presence, only four of Hamilton County's 48 elementary schools now offer any foreign language training even though 50 different languages are spoken in Chattanooga area schools, Stevens said.
Stevens' school has has grown its enrollment more than seven-fold in the past five years with more than 40 part-time instructors and the new ESL classes should continue that growth pace, Stevens said.
"There is a definite need for these classes and we hope to grow to meet that demand," she said.
From its office on Access Road in Hixson, the Chattanooga School of Language offers a variety of classroom settings, flexible schedules and cultural activities to help educate students of all ages in different languages.
Last year, the Chattanooga School for Language was a winner of the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce Small Business Award and won the top Idea Leap grant in the first year of the new program by the Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union.
"The Chattanooga of 2018 is quite different from the Chattanooga of a decade ago," Stevens said. "Now, as many as 75 different languages are spoken here in a community that represents many different backgrounds and cultures."
Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 757-6340.