Aquinas Literacy Center finds new home in McKinley Park community
July 8, 2017

At its new home, Aquinas Literacy Center will continue to offer English as a Second Language (ESL) and other programs valuable to community residents.

By Sheila Elliott

Aquinas Literacy Center (ALC), a longtime source for English as a second language (ESL) education, has selected a building at Hermitage Avenue and 35th Street as its new home.

First announced last spring, Aquinas’s move began in June, with no disruption to instructional services expected, said Alison Altmeyer, executive director. The new instructional center, at 1751 W. 35th St., is one block north of its familiar location at 3540 S. Hermitage Ave.—a building that has, over the years, served as the location for both a charter school and religious education center, along with the ESL center. It is part of the Blessed Sacrament Parish.

Altmeyer and trustees of the Aquinas Literacy Center began the search for a new home after Blessed Sacrament pastor Rev. Ishmael Sandoval and the Archdiocese of Chicago informed them in January that the parish would not renew their lease, Altmeyer said.

Fr. Sandoval spoke glowingly about the ALC but noted interest in Blessed Sacrament’s religious education classes and other programs has been on the rise, and the parish needed the space.

“They are doing a wonderful job,” he said of the ALC, but leasing the space meant that, for most of the year, Blessed Sacrament had access to only about half its space.

Given enrollment projections, the parish needed all the space for its own programs. The parish had offered to lease a former convent to the literacy center, but it was not suitable for the ALC’s purposes, Altmeyer said. ALC is part of a nationwide network, the Dominican Rea Literacy Corp., run by the Adrian Dominican Sisters. The ALC, operating since 1996, provides trained tutors who work individually with adult learners, at minimal cost to the student.

The local center’s age demographic is wide, with a mid-40s median age, according to Altmeyer. In the last few years, the number of female learners has increased “significantly,” she added.

Advantages to moving

Although moving brought unexpected expenses, the new location will provide more space and air conditioned instructional areas, two amenities lacking at the ALC’s current home, Altmeyer said. She pointed to a large classroom where two students, both of them mature women, sat alongside tutors, their eyes focused on English language manuals and workbooks. It was a “typical” scene, according to Altmeyer. “Our programs are thriving,” she said, noting interest has been rising steadily over the last few years.

Data provided by the school showed an enrollment of 198 adult learners engaged in ESL tutorials in the 2016-17 school year. Altmeyer pointed to a strong need for not just for ESL instruction but for all types of social services in the McKinley Park neighborhood.

“This is an underserved community” that needs more, she said. For many of the people living in the frame homes and small brick buildings that line its largely residential streets, English is not their native tongue, and they face problems mastering Chicago’s transportation system, finding a job, getting to or from medical services, and simply becoming adjusted to urban life, Altmeyer said.

Though its focus is primarily ESL instruction, the literacy center also serves “as an information source for other issues too,” she added. Instruction is criteria-based, so students advance only as they meet their individual goals. Most attend weekly 90-minute sessions for about two years, Altmeyer explained, noting that their motive is to become comfortable enough with English so they can continue their education or increase employment opportunities.

Altmeyer said the center’s popularity is due to its location in the community, as most students do not have cars. They must walk to all their destinations, Altmeyer noted, so when the time came for selecting a new building, administrators sought out a place close to the original site.

The ALC, a non-profit agency, received help from elected officials at both the State and local levels to find suitable sites before selecting the building on 35th Street. Individuals associated with a logistics company based in the Bridgeport area own the building, Altmeyer said.

Though the move has meant additional work and expense, it also brings many new amenities and possibilities, Altmeyer said, including greater visibility, proximity to
Chicago public school, air conditioning, and more space. “Definite advantages,” Altmeyer said, noting this is “an exciting time for the literacy center.”

To make a donation to help with moving expenses or for more information, call (773) 927-0512.