Journeys: Open Door students tell stories of perseverance


Wednesday night, several students from Open Door Learning Center will share their stories of overcoming barriers of language and culture at a reading at the Loft Literary Center.

Open Door is tucked above the Denny’s on East Lake Street, and outdoor signage doesn’t provide much in the way of fanfare. However, walk through its doors on any weekday, and you’ll find bustling classrooms full of English language learner and G.E.D. students of all ages. They are hoping to improve their English writing, reading, and speaking skills; earn their G.E.D; learn basic math skills; or prepare for citizenship.

A student listens to a lesson in the G.E.D. class at Open Door.

Open Door Students

Students come to the program with varying skill levels – from pre-literate to students with a university degree from their country of origin. Since the school is near public transit systems, some come from all over the metro. However, there are many students that live in the neighborhood.

Most students take the courses in the hopes of improving their chances of finding a job, according to Emily Beltmann-Swenson, Open Door’s outreach, marketing, and retention specialist.

Gabriel Naula, a student Open Door, has spoken English for ten years, but is attending classes to take his skills to the next level. He hopes to expand his English skills so he can attend college or go to culinary school to build a better future for himself. “School is wonderful,” he commented. The teachers are “welcoming to everyone – younger and older, and I get to learn from different cultures – I think that is very beautiful. I get to meet people from all over the world.”

To stay enrolled, students must attend at least 75 percent of classes per month. However, for some, getting to class can be a challenge. Some students must care for a child or family member if they get sick, others are refugees with a multitude of appointments they must attend to keep their funding, and some have car trouble.

A student works on her writing skills in Open Door’s Advanced ESL class.

Measuring Success

The classes are open to anyone, and are provided on an ongoing basis. Students graduate to the next level of classes by taking standardized tests.

A program of the Minnesota Literacy Council, these standardized tests are one way that Open Door’s success is measured. Recently, the school hired a testing expert to help students improve their test scores. In the past, the success that the students were seeing wasn’t translated through the tests. The changes initiated by the testing expert made a difference. The school went from receiving a score of 5 out of 11 last year and a 3 out of 11 previously, to receiving a score of 7 out of 11 this year by the NRS, a national organization that oversees adult education programs.

Many of the teachers and assistants are volunteers at Open Door. This teacher helps an Advanced ESL student with his writing.

Learning the Students’ Stories

“You don’t really think about it until [the students] tell a story that they’ve lived through so much – because they come to school every day, they have a smile on their face,” said Beltmann-Swenson. “Their perseverance and willingness to start over again and start anew here is really amazing. One way that we do get to see their stories come out is through Journeys [the annual literary publication by the Minnesota Literacy Council].”

You will have the opportunity to hear these stories tomorrow night at the Loft Literary Center when students will read their published work. Four students from Open Door will be reading: Lourdes Hernandez Zayas, Ibado Jama, Connie Bruhn, and Lashunda Cohen. Additionally, two volunteers from the program will receive awards. Steve Parker will receive an honorable mention for Outstanding Volunteer and Sheila Enerson will receive one of only a few Outstanding Volunteer awards. The program begins at 6 p.m. Details are available on the Loft’s website.

A student listens to a lesson in Open Door’s G.E.D. class.

Volunteer at Open Door

With four paid teachers and three paid program coordinators, the school relies heavily on volunteers. Volunteer opportunities are available during the day or in the evenings. Volunteers can co-teach, lead a classroom, or help the program in other ways. The requirements? A person who is looking to serve, is eager to work with a diverse group, and who speaks English as a first language, explained Annelisa Donlan, coordinator at Open Door. A background in education is nice, but isn’t necessary.

“[Volunteering is] a great way to have one-on-one contact with neighbors from other cultures,” commented Donlan.

Open Door Learning Center is located at 2700 E. Lake Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-483-1763 or email for more information.