Earlier this year, local business owner Lisa Yost made a decision that would change the trajectory of her employees’ lives.
Her husband, Peter Galvin, started Tenleytown Lawn & Landscape with a lawnmower and a pickup truck over 20 years ago. The company eventually grew into a team of around ten employees who deliver a variety of landscaping services to residents in Bethesda-Chevy Chase and surrounding areas.
When Galvin passed away from cancer in 2021, Yost, who practiced emergency medicine, felt compelled to carry on the business.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to do or what I was getting into,” she said, remembering how she struggled with “everything from marketing to banking to human resources.”
Working in a male-dominated field with employees who predominantly spoke another language made it hard for her to connect with her team and earn their respect, she said. But Yost was undeterred.
“One of my mottos in life is, ‘Whatever the problem, connection is the answer.’ The one thing I knew I needed to connect was language.”
In the spring of 2022, Yost reached out to the local nonprofit Montgomery Coalition for Adult English Literacy for help.
MCAEL supports free English learning programs across the county by providing curriculum and trained instructors. Its work empowers over 11,000 adults each year to learn English through classes hosted by over 60 nonprofits, faith-based organizations and community learning groups like Yost’s, according to Executive Director Kathy Stevens. MCAEL teachers are provided with professional development opportunities and technical support to ensure a high quality education.
Around 32% of current Montgomery County residents are foreign-born, and over 129,000 adult residents self-identify as limited in their English proficiency, according to census data.
“English education is a key to so many things,” Stevens said. “It’s a basic right to be able to communicate. It gives you agency.”
Residents who want to speak better English often face a barrage of barriers to receiving that education, Parkinson said. Many non-English speakers work multiple jobs, lack reliable transportation and childcare, and have restricted income, she said.
By providing small businesses with the tools to host classes on-site during business hours, Stevens said, the community learning group (CLG) model eliminates many of these barriers and connects adults with the education they need to thrive.
Yost has been hosting a community learning group on-site at her company’s headquarters for between 30 and 35 weeks. Seven employees gather for classes every Friday afternoon from 1 to 3 p.m. Instructor Stacy Parkinson said the progress she’s seen in her students in such a short time has been astounding.
“They seem like completely different people now,” she said. “These guys are smart — super smart. They’re making connections I haven’t even taught yet. Some of them work ahead in the book and want me to check their work. They’re very motivated.”
She added, “I think that’s a reflection of an employer who’s willing to invest in them.”
Parkinson said she tries to incorporate job-related terms and assignments into lessons as much as possible, so students can start to use English both on the job and in their community. When she’s unable to teach a Friday class, Yost steps in to substitute.
“I don’t know many employers who would do that,” Parkinson said.
Team member Geraldo has been with the company for over a decade. Yost remembers when she first met him, he could barely speak English and didn’t have his driver’s license.
Despite his long history with the company, when she took over he was still working as a “helper,” at the bottom of the paygrade. Yost said she’s seen dramatic improvement in Geraldo’s personal and professional life since learning English.
“His entire countenance has changed,” she said. “He stands taller. He looks me in the eye.”
Geraldo successfully got his driver’s license, and Yost promoted him to team foreman. She said his family recently celebrated the birth of a daughter, who they named Lisita, Spanish for “little Lisa,” after her.
Yost said she sees paying her employees for the time they spend learning English as “an investment in kindness, my business, and the world.”
Parkinson said although the community learning group model is still relatively new to Montgomery County, MCAEL is already seeing a high rate of success and increased local interest in the offering.