When she moved with her husband from the Dominican Republic to Ithaca, Patricia Ginebra felt she had no way to become a part of the community.

“I didn’t speak anything in English, and my husband worked all day,” she said. “For a few months, I was in my house alone.”


Ginebra said she could not communicate with the people around her, making her feel isolated in her new home.

Now, because of a group of ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers, Ginebra and over a hundred others from all over the world are learning and improving their ability to communicate with people through a new program in downtown Ithaca called Open Doors English.

The non-profit program first began this September. They now host classes 4 days a week out of the First Presbyterian Church in Ithaca, providing all types of adult english learners with the tools they need to connect to the world around them.

Many people “can feel really isolated if they’re not able to work in this community,” said Hilary Boyer, the project co-director and student services coordinator for Open Doors English. “They need the English to get along in their daily lives.”

Boyer says about half of the students in the program are permanent residents of Ithaca, while others are temporary residents, often because of connections they have to Cornell.


Many of these students, before the creation of this program, did not have the same access to ESL classes.

“All of us who are working now at Open Doors English, used to work for TST (Tompkins-Seneca-Tioga) BOCES in their ESL program,” said Boyer.

Last year, she says, BOCES started to change their ESL program, taking actions such as removing the position of a dedicated long-time administrator, Julie Coulomb, and then restricting who would be able to take the courses, and what those students would be getting from it. Open Doors English is held at the former location of the BOCES program before it moved to another space downtown during restructuring.

“It sort of culminated in making the program only work related,” said Boyer. “So the only people that were allowed to come to the program were people that could work in this country and that we’re planning to work in the country.”

In addition, she says the curriculum was changed so that the teachers could only teach work-related English.

“In February, they kicked out about half the students. They told them they were no longer eligible for the program.”

These changes led to her and 7 other experienced teachers quitting BOCES as a group that same month.

After they left BOCES, the teachers taught as volunteers before forming Open Doors English as a nonprofit entity with fiscal sponsorship from the Center For Transformative Action in Ithaca.

They can now open the program to all non-native adults wanting to learn English, regardless of their ability to work, and can adjust the curriculum to suit whatever needs they have.

“Having our own program where we can really zero in on the needs of our program and our teachers and then find ways to support each other in that feels really good,“ said Liz Susmann, a teacher and co-director for Open Doors English who previously taught at BOCES before leaving with her coworkers.

Susmann and Boyer explained how the classes have changed from how they were taught at BOCES. Since the switch to Open Doors English, their courses have become more focused on real world situations and practices rather than being driven by testing.

“We’re able to really target the learning to what the students most need to learn without worrying about whether or not it will increase their score on a particular test,” said Boyer

For example, Susmann says she often asks students what situations they lack confidence in so it can be addressed.

“A lot of people said, ‘I still don’t feel confident when I step into a store and need to buy something and the cashier says something to me and I, I just freeze,’” she said.

In the class, she says, they roleplay those situations by coming up with the phrases likely to come up there and preparing them for the different situations so that when they are encountered in the real world, the students will be ready.

Maike Schacht along with other students like Ginebra, did not want to lose their teachers, so they took the jump as well.

“I was a student at BOCES before,” said Schacht, who is originally from Germany. “And so I just stayed with my teachers, because they are so great.”


According to Boyer, the cuts at BOCES began with BOCES removing the position of Julie Coulombe, the former coordinator of the BOCES Adult ESL program. After being let go, Coulombe died this March after a fight with cancer, but she is still a part of Open Doors English, having been the inspiration for the rest of the teachers to create the program.

The full name of the program is Open Doors English: The Julie Rudd Coulombe Language Program.

Their website says the name “Open Doors English” comes from a story often told by Julie, comparing living in Ithaca without knowing English to living in a house with windows but no doors. Without knowing English, the website says, you can see out, but you are not able to participate. Learning the language opens those doors for their students.

Not only were those at Open Doors English inspired by Julie, but her advocacy is also what made it possible.

“She had been a really tireless advocate for immigrants and for English as a second language speakers for 30 years in Ithaca,” Boyer explained.  “So when she died, there was a fund established by her family and they generously gave it to us to start our school. So that was the reason we could afford to rent this space.”

Intermediate level students at Open Doors English shared in English what they did over the weekend for the rest of the class.

The program does more for the students than just teaching them English though.

“It’s been one of the delights of this program to watch people, to watch people interact who would not otherwise meet each other in life. When you put people into a classroom, where all of them speak a minimal level of English, then in some ways, you create an equal playing field for them,” said Boyer

Teachers spoke of how the program’s accessibility, while also being affordable through the sliding scale they use to determine fees, led to an environment where people from all over the world of different class, race, nationality, or other typical divisions have formed bonds and become friends.

“It’s a really unique setting where students from really every background imaginable, sit together around the same classroom,” said Susmann. “You have university professors interacting with refugees, who may have limited formal education or limited opportunity for formal education and they are helping each other and talking together and sharing ideas about how to solve problems they both have in that, and it’s just very sweet.”

Students have noticed this as well, and are grateful for it.

“In this program, I know, many different cultures. It’s very nice to know people from another country different or, my country around the world,” said Ginebra. “I have many friends now.”

Schacht, an advanced student said that being able to find friends is one of the main reasons she is taking these classes

“Yeah, you can learn a lot about other cultures, about other people,” she said. “It’s one step to get to connect to people here.”


Open Doors English needs to find funding to keep the program what it is.

“One of the big concerns that we have is how we can possibly get enough money to keep the program going,” said Boyer. “It’s really unrealistic to ask our students to pay the amount that it would cost.”

Many of the Current needs of Open Doors English. Many of the resources on hand at the program are second-hand or donated.

Currently, Boyer says they charge students on a sliding scale depending on the living situation of the student. They charge from nothing to about $350, with most students paying between $75 and $100 for four weeks of courses. To manage the program and pay the teachers what they should be paid, she says they would be charging each student about $800 for the same period of time.

Since they are not relying on students for their primary income, they have to seek other means to keep going and find funding. Currently, funding that they receive comes through fundraising grants and donations, but they do not have enough yet to be where they need to be.

“The teachers are working for less than half of what they were paid before, and three of us are working for free,” Boyer said. “We just volunteered to work for this period of time to see if we could get on our feet as a program.”

The organizers and students have taken actions to make the program more visible in the community, like working with the many events and exhibits downtown this November through the ‘How Did We Get Here; series by the People’s Pop Up Project, and a recent ribbon cutting event attended by the Mayor, but they know they need to keep pushing.

“This is our make it or break it year,” Susmann explained. “But on the whole, we feel so happy to be doing this. We love having the freedom to structure the program and the classes the way that we know best meets the needs of our students.”

The program is seeking donations and volunteers, and opportunities to do so can be found on their website.

As the program continues its first year, the teachers will give more and more people the tools they need to become a part of the community.

“I know that I make mistakes when I speak, but I think I can do everything that I need,” said Ginebra. “I can do everything.”

All Photos Taken by Jay Bradley​
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