Learning in Style with CSJ sisters in south Minneapolis

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On a Friday morning, a group of six adult English Language Learners (ELL) and their teacher gathered around a table in a small room and shared food that each of them had made from their home countries. One young woman handed out injera, African spongy bread that she had marinated for days. A student from Vietnam passed around egg rolls. The potluck was not a typical lesson at Learning in Style School, but the teacher, a Sister of Saint Joseph, embraced the occasion as a way to celebrate community while learning English.

The Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet (CSJ) is an order of Catholic sisters that was founded in France in 1650. About 320 sisters belong to the local branch. Their activities include healthcare, advocacy, housing, spirituality, and education. The Learning in Style School (LSS), an adult learning center for refugees and immigrants, is currently housed at 26th and Blaisdell, but the school will be moving this year to a new location at 22nd and Nicollet, in a building that was formerly a funeral home. The larger building will be able to accommodate LSS’s expanding programs, which include English, math, computer studies, nutrition and citizenship.

“The way in which we have students is different than other schools,” said Sister Agnes Foley, who runs the program. Learning in Style’s policy is to have a class no bigger than those that can fit around one table. So while they currently have 170 students, the classes are divided into small groups for individual learning.

The staff at Learning in Style includes eight CSJ sisters, two Sisters of Notre Dame, and five lay staff. But in the school setting, the sisters are generally referred to as “Teacher” followed by their last name. One of the teachers, who is from Vietnam, was formerly a student at the school.

Foley said that when the school began 15 years ago, it served both adult learners who had dropped out of high schools and foreign students, but they decided to focus on the ELL students.

Many students face obstacles to learning. A social worker on staff aids students with legal and other issues. Learning in Style Staff members often help making phone calls, and refer students to food shelves, health and medical resources, and housing advocacy organizations. Currently St. Mary’s clinic, which the CSJ sisters also run, is housed in the same building as LSS. While the new school will be in a separate location, the clinic will still be a resource.

The school provides coffee for their students and a small snack for breakfast. “We began by serving just coffee in the morning,” said Foley, “but then we discovered that the coffee was a lot of people’s breakfast in the morning. So we started serving breakfast sweets as well. But then we found out that most of them prefer something not sweet, so we usually put out crackers.” This holiday season, staff also distributed handmade mittens that were donated from the CSJ community.

Foley said that for some of the adult learners, the school supports community as well as serving as a way to learn English.

“Maybe they’re not learning that much, but if they weren’t coming here, they’d be totally isolated,” she said of some students. “They need to be able to come and mix.”

“The sisters attend to a network of needs,” said Irene O’Neill, Executive Director of CSJ. “Some of the immigrants that come to us don’t have enough food, or clothing. Some of them are victims of torture.”

O’Neill also said that the education, though run by the sisters, is not religious based. “It’s about their needs,” she said, “not ours.”

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.

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