Upward Academy, a collaborative effort between Tyson Foods Inc. and Wilkes Community College (WCC), recently launched adult education classes for Tyson team members at the company’s facilities in Wilkesboro. Nearly 180 team members are now attending classes in high school equivalency (GED) and English language communication skills.
The scale of this undertaking required planning and coordination of staff from WCC and Tyson, including Debbie Woodard, WCC Dean of College and Career Readiness; Tammy Griffin-Garcia and Robin Keller, Coordinators of WCC English Language Acquisition and Adult High School; Brent West, Tyson HR Manager, and Tyson Chaplains Jennifer Blackburn-Bracey and Duane Binkley.
More than 20 languages are spoken in Tyson Foods’ Wilkesboro operations. The first Upward Academy was launched in March 2016, at a Tyson facility in Springdale, Arkansas, where Chaplain Kevin Scherer realized the lack of English ability among the largely Hispanic and Marshallese workers not only affected them in their everyday lives, but also had an impact on absenteeism, productivity, and safety. The mission was soon broadened to include members from all walks of life, and high school equivalency, computer, and financial literacy classes were added to provide needed skills. Tyson Foods continues to collaborate with adult education providers like WCC to expand the Upward Academy program to nearly 40 locations by the end of 2018.
Classes at the Wilkesboro facility are now open during peak times between shifts from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. at two of the Tyson plants, with plans to include team members from a third plant. Two levels of English Language Acquisition – beginning and intermediate/advanced – and classes in preparation for high school equivalency tests are offered. During the initial roll-out phase, over 300 team members expressed interest in attending classes. The program will continue to refine schedules and locations to serve team members who wish to gain skills and enhance opportunities for advancement.
Team members attend classes on their own time before or after shifts. Some are refugees and commute from Greensboro and High Point to their long days of work and school. Students readily express the importance of attending class. One team member from Ethiopia, fluent in three other languages, states, “Life is no good without speaking English.” She and her children moved to western North Carolina while her husband finishes a residency program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The family considers this area a safer environment.
A team member from Nepal speaks two languages and wants to learn English. She and many other students want to become naturalized US citizens. A student from the Congo speaks six languages – English will be his seventh – and another from Sudan has a four-year degree and is working to put his children through school. Three have finished college, one is currently attending, and the fifth will start next year.
Students working to finish their high school credentials hope to position themselves for promotions within Tyson Foods. Some team members are attending English and adult education on the WCC campus before or after their shifts. College and Career Readiness classes are free and open to all. For information, call 336-903-3230.