"We did a lot of role plays," she said. " 'Where's the buffet?' 'Where's the bingo?' Common phrases they need to know in the workplace."

Casino employees graduate from English class

NORWICH, CT - In her blue and black Foxwoods Resort Casino uniform, Sai Li Zhang stood in front of two dozen people gathered in a meeting room Monday afternoon at the downtown Norwich offices of the Mashantucket Pequot Academy.

She put on her reading glasses and unfolded a piece of notebook paper she pulled from her pocket.

"I try and use English," the 56-year-old environmental service department worker said. "...If I am wrong, I beg your pardon."

Zhang, a Norwich woman who has worked at Foxwoods for four years, was one of nine students who graduated from a 10-week beginning English class offered jointly by the Academy and the Norwich Adult Education Regional Cooperative. Zhang and classmates met twice a week, with many in the group trading the classroom for the casino at the end of their two-hour session.

Zorka Harrison and Deborah Brown, class instructors, said the lessons were geared toward phrases and situations their students might find themselves in during the course of their work.

Since the class was attended only by workers from the casino's cleaning crew, Harrison said they tried to teach students how to deal with a situation where someone is sick in the bathroom. Brown said they also talked about how students could respond to someone asking them for money, someone who wants an employee to watch their child or someone who simply wants directions.

"We did a lot of role plays," she said. " 'Where's the buffet?' 'Where's the bingo?' Common phrases they need to know in the workplace."

Almost 50 students in the first session represented 31 different countries, said Lisa Berry, director of organizational development and diversity programs at Foxwoods. Seven of the nine students in Zhang's class, including the Norwich woman, will return for advanced English lessons through the cooperative either this fall or winter.

For Tess Tenrreiro, the assistant director of the environmental services department at Foxwoods, 400 of the 700 employees in her department do not speak fluent English. The graduates of these classes eventually may not need the translators and picture diagrams to communicate with their coworkers and supervisors.

Mimosa Parlement, a 50-year-old Haitian woman now living in Norwich, also tried some of her newly acquired English in addressing the group.

"I'm sad because the school is finished," the 16-year Foxwoods employee said.

Tracey Sebastian-Ingram, director of the casino's environmental services department, said that was hardly the case.

"It's not finished," Sebastian-Ingram said. "It's the beginning."