Amid immigrant population boom, English courses in high demand in Prince William Co.

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Shirley Cabello stood up in class Monday morning to recap a Mother’s Day well spent.

In front of classmates who together represent six different countries, Cabello described celebrating with her daughter in a most American fashion: first at IHOP, then at The Cheesecake Factory.

Sunday, she told the class slowly but without too much difficulty, was her day off from her job at Marshalls. For the past two months she has been spending her Monday mornings at a classroom in Manassas Presbyterian Church, working on her English in an advanced class taught by Isabella Sammon.

“I want to look for another job, a better job, more benefits. But I need to learn English,” said Cabello, who came to Virginia from Peru in 2021. “I understand, but I need to know how to respond, how to use the words when people ask me questions.”

The classes are run by BEACON English Language & Literacy, a nonprofit founded in 1992 by Sister Eileen Heaps of the Benedictine Sisters of Virginia. The non-religious organization holds morning and evening classes at Manassas Presbyterian, Bethel Lutheran Church, the Manassas Park Community Center and online, but it has a problem: It’s running out of space.

Jude Gillespie teaches a beginner English class for BEACON English Language & Literacy. (InsideNoVa/Jared Foretek)

As the region’s immigrant population has exploded, so has BEACON’s enrollment, reaching a high of over 320 students for its current 12-week season. The organization offers different classes for everyone, from people who can’t read or write in their native language to English beginners and those with some English competency.

The biggest need, according to BEACON’s executive director, Jennifer Katac, is for more volunteer teachers, especially for the upper-level beginner classes in highest demand.

“We have more students coming to us than we can put into our classes,” Katac told InsideNoVa. “We also get a lot of referrals, and we have organizations like Prince William County Social Services that will pay for a student … but they want to send us more students than we have space for. There’s such a huge demand, and there aren’t enough programs offering the services to give a seat to everyone who’d like to learn.”

The two-hour, twice-weekly classes cost $65 for the 12-week semester and come with a textbook, though Katac said the organization mostly has a policy of not letting cost keep a student from enrolling.

Working toward a better life

Sitting outside Sammons’ class, Norma Pelico said she moved to Virginia from Guatemala about seven years ago. She said it’s been difficult communicating with people without a solid footing in English, especially her manager at a local restaurant, where she works one of her two jobs. But she said she can feel the progress she’s making every day, thanks in part to her teacher.

“The teacher is very good at it,” she said. “When we use the wrong word, she corrects us and that’s good for us, because that’s how we learn … She’s a good teacher.”

Lois Roy teaches an intermediate class at Manassas Presbyterian Church. (InsideNoVa/Jared Foretek)

Pelico was 19 when she came to the United States, too old for the free public education she had hoped to receive. Now, English classes are crucial to her long-term goals of working in dermatology.

“I want to find a better job, and then I want to have my GED,” Pelico said. “I want to study something else, that’s my goal. But it’s not easy because here I have to work and study, and I don’t have time.”

There are other resources for new residents to learn English, namely through Catholic Charities and the region’s public school systems, but those offerings are more expensive.

When BEACON can’t take a student immediately, the organization will refer them out, Katac said, but the price can be prohibitive. Six-week summer classes through Prince William Schools, for example, cost $120 without the textbook. And according to Katac, other nonprofits are having just as hard of a time keeping up with demand.

“Usually, the cost is going to be what sends them back our way,” she said. “We’ve had students tell us they’ll wait for our classes because it’s more affordable for them.”

Diverse surroundings

BEACON students come speaking over 40 languages, Katac said. Spanish is the most common, but the organization has seen a big increase in the number of Afghan students since the U.S. withdrawal in 2021. As of last year, Virginia had resettled more Afghan refugees than any other state in the country per capita. BEACON has also seen a smaller uptick in the number of Ukrainian-speaking students since the Russian invasion there last February.

Katac says the enrollment boom really began when the pandemic first took hold, disrupting the labor market and forcing BEACON to go online-only, making access easier.

Many of BEACON’s English classes fill up before registration closes. The organization has seen an influx in Afghan and Ukrainian students in the last several years. (InsideNoVa/Jared Foretek)

Even before that, the general growth in Northern Virginia’s immigrant population has meant an ever-increasing need for classes and instructors. In Prince William alone, the foreign-born population grew from about 85,000 in 2010 to 124,000 in 2022, the biggest increase in the region. That represents over 25% of the county’s population.

To keep up with the growing need, BEACON started an online “Learning Circles” program in April. For that free program, students use the Learning Upgrade app or website at their convenience, and then they join weekly Zoom meetings for practice with each other and a volunteer facilitator.

“We added the Learning Circles to try to accommodate some of these students who are coming to us between class sessions or maybe they got to the registration and their class level was full because there was nowhere to physically put them,” Katac said. “So it was just to give them access to the learning so they’re not having to wait three months to start learning English.”

Cinthia Keller, a native of Brazil, in Isabella Sammons’ advanced English class. (InsideNoVa/Jared Foretek)

Young Yoon, taking his first in-person class with BEACON, said he was drawn to the low cost. He moved to Bristow from Korea in 1998, but never felt compelled to work on his English because he lived among so many people who spoke his native language.

“My English was very poor; I didn’t study English at all when I came here. There was many Korean people around me, and I did not know the importance of learning English … that was my mistake,” Yoon said.

He only dabbled in learning the language while working as an IT technician, but after two back surgeries left him out of work, he joined a Learning Circles group.

“Before I find a job, I need to learn more English,” he said.

Now in Sammons’ class, Yoon said paying a bit more for the full experience has been well worth it.

“The teacher’s very patient to teach us, and in the class we do many different things, so we do not get bored.”

At the start of Isabella Sammons’ advanced class, students make conversation using “Table Topics.” (InsideNoVa/Jared Foretek)

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner and republished with permission. Sign up for’s free email subscription today.


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