These English fluency & GED programs are helping La Villa Hispana residents find higher-paying jobs

When Spanish-American Committee executive director Ramonita Vargas submitted 25 nursing candidates to a major medical institution for hiring consideration, she felt positive about their prospects—but was dismayed when all 25 were turned away “because their English wasn’t perfect.”

That’s one of the reasons Vargas and the team at Span-Am are so passionate about helping Clevelanders who want to improve their English fluency: to remove the language barrier that often overshadows their expertise and help them connect to higher-paying job opportunities. “If you’re educated,” she says, “why would you take a job for $8 or $9 an hour?”

This summer, 21 men and four women filed into a room at Span-Am twice a week from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. with the hopes of obtaining a job via the Latino Construction Program (LCP). In another room, aspiring nurses studied three times a week for the NCLEX exam, required for licensure in the state of Ohio.

For both groups, it was not their vocational skills being developed. It was their English.

And there may be more of a need now more than ever for these services, as Vargas estimates that over 2,500 people came to Span-Am for help after Hurricane Maria. And, according to, 11 percent of Clark-Fulton residents currently do not speak English or do not speak it well enough to be conversant.

Building up the community

Span-Am’s NCLEX program was launched in early 2018, while LCP began in the middle of 2017. Both programs were created thanks in part to the efforts of Dr. Akram Boutros, chief executive officer of MetroHealth. Other integral partners of the construction program include Adrian Maldonado & Associates (which has employed some graduates to work on the MetroHealth campus transformation project) and the Hispanic Contractors Association.

The purpose of LCP is to assist those who already possess the skills to work in construction in navigating the employment process here in the United States. Applicants must meet minimum requirements including passing an assessment, having no felonies in the last five years, and having a valid driver’s license. If a client arrives with no high school diploma, they are referred to Span-Am’s GED program and can reapply for the LCP upon completion.

Over the six-week course, participants learn basic ESL construction terminology and take classes on topics including Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certification, the history and purpose of unions, conflict resolution, and how to operate safety equipment. At least 53 program graduates have been placed in positions making $18 or more an hour, with one particularly successful alum making $40 an hour as a carpenter.

“[We] focus on primary skills needed to obtain jobs that offer sustainable wages,” says program director Kenny Torres. “The hands-on work comes easy, [but] coming from another country, finding a job here is different.”

The interview process is reviewed in class, with practicing conversational English as a crucial component. Some do well in class, but struggle with the real interview. “[Most] clients know more English than they think they do,” says Torres, indicating that a large portion of LCP clients are from Puerto Rico, “but they need to get out of their shell.”

Sowing hope

GED preparation is another means of removing employment barriers for Cleveland’s Hispanic and Latino populations—and Seeds of Literacy has played a large role in achieving that end, having offered free year-round GED preparation since 1997. They’ve become so well-known for their work that United Way offered them a challenge: do it in Spanish.

The pilot program began on July 2 in partnership with their building neighbor, Esperanza, Inc. (which also offers its own free 12-week ESL program). Unlike Span-Am’s classes, these GED tutoring sessions are conducted solely in Spanish.

Interested students can contact Seeds of Literacy or Esperanza and are then given an assessment to test their level. From there, individualized support occurs through one-on-one tutoring. There is no waiting period to join; the most recent orientation occurred earlier this week on July 29. Students can also stay in the program until they obtain their GED and/or gain employment.

Sessions are twice a week from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., although the students will often stay until 8 p.m. Tutors happily oblige, according to program director Carmine Stewart, as they have “connected and bonded with the students.” About seven students show up consistently and are always looking for their tutors upon arrival.

Bonnie Entler, executive director at Seeds, says they are pursuing more funding to expand the program, but are also in need of tutors. These volunteers receive an initial six-hour training and extensive opportunities for professional development. “[Tutors] are learning and growing as well,” says Stewart. For many of them, English is their first language, and students often help clarify terms in Spanish during tutoring. “It levels the playing field.”

Moving forward

In serving the influx of people following Hurricane Maria and expanding their programs, Vargas has many ambitions for the future, but Span-Am is in need of more space. Their childcare program has outgrown its current building, and with 53 years in the Ohio City area, the hope is to move toward the center of the Latino community in Cleveland.

Torres would also love to see LCP expand by offering a regular subcontracting class, which would help clients set up their own construction companies. He recalls doing this for one former client who has now hired other LCP graduates, and says they are working on developing curriculum. “Education…is what works best [for our clients] to gain sustainable employment and [get] out of poverty,” he shares. “There are jobs that they can apply for now…perhaps earning $8 or $9 an hour, but they know they deserve more, so our clients enroll in these programs.”

And now more people will be joining their ranks, with the latest LCP class having graduated on July 12 and the inaugural NCLEX class having graduated yesterday, July 31. Adelante!

(Interested in volunteering with the Seeds of Literacy program? Contact Shannon Farrer at or 216-661-7950.)

This article is part of our On the Ground - La Villa Hispana community reporting project in partnership with Dollar Bank, Hispanic Business Center, Esperanza Inc., Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.