‘It has been really amazing to see how this program has grown’

SANTA ROSA – Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce’s 3-year-old Worksite Held Employee English Learning, or WHEEL, program is graduating 100 people this month from five businesses, and is expanding into three more businesses this year.

Amy’s Kitchen, 4Cs, LEMO, La Tortilla Factory and Filtration Group have classes graduating in June, bringing the total number of people who have done programs through WHEEL to 297.

“This year we are launching programs at Neilmed, EMG, River Rock and a group of hotels,” said Kelly Bass, the director of workforce development at the chamber.

She said EMG is starting with just the English classes, and has 17 people signed up.

There have been hotels that have participated in the program before such as the Hyatt and Hilton. But now, said Ms. Bass, there are several small hotels forming a group. So far, the Best Western Wine Country Inn and Suites and the Sandman are participating, and they are looking for more to join.

Neilmed is a sinus rinse manufacturer located near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa. They are opening up the program to any of their 75 full-time and 100 temporary employees, said Ms. Bass.

WHEEL is a customizable program that allows employers to have courses for English language learners onsite.

In addition to the onsite classes, the program includes a Literacy Fiesta, A Family Literacy Parent Workshop, Books to Work and a Financial Literacy Academy.

The Literacy Fiesta reaches parents by giving them literacy information and a workbook with activities to do with their children. The Family Literacy Parent Workshop Series teaches parents techniques of reading and book sharing with their children. And the Books to Work Project offers a book exchange program. English language learners with children ages 0-5 receive a bag of books on a biweekly basis.

“It has been really amazing to see how much this program has grown,” said Ms. Bass. “The ultimate goal is for the students to go to the junior college, but there are lots of factors as to why they are not there now. We make it easy.”

Elenor Welch is a retired teacher and she has been a key partner in developing the program with the chamber.

“She was the primary teacher for all of last year,” said Ms. Bass. “She helped develop the criteria and to help assess where students are in the beginning and the end of the course.”

The original program evolved after Estela Prado, Filtration Group human resources administrator, and Dean Kerstetter, who at the time was director of West Coast operations, began attending Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce meetings. A chamber committee was trying to figure out how to help children in schools improve their grades and graduation rates. It was discovered that a major stopping point was a lack of participation from parents in schools directly related to language skills.

The courses cost $2,000 for 32 hours of instruction, which includes assessment, teacher curriculum prep and graduation ceremony.