LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Jose Alvarez didn’t have many chances to work on his English over the past year.

What You Need To Know

  • The Backside Learning Center (BLC) serves workers on the backside of Churchill Downs

  • The BLC English classes are among its most popular offerings

  • After more than a year of being online, the classes have returned this month

  • Students gathered Wednesday to work on the language skills

The pandemic shut down in-person classes at the Backside Learning Center (BLC), the nonprofit serving workers on the backside of Churchill Downs, and the 33-year-old exercise rider admits he didn’t make a habit of watching the live streams that replaced them.

But on Wednesday, several weeks after the BLC reopened its doors to English learners, Alvarez was back in the classroom, conjugating verbs and explaining confounding concepts to his classmates.

“I understand a lot, but to talk English is harder,” said Alvarez, a Guatemala native who has worked at Churchill Downs for six years.

The BLC provides a host of essential services to the hundreds who work, and often live, on the backside of the iconic South Louisville racetrack. But no service is as vital as its English classes.

The classes help workers “communicate with their trainers, their owners, and with anyone they work with,” said Karla Villa, operations and program support specialist at the BLC. Teachers make sure workers know words such as “barn” and “stable,” and along with imparting the often-obtuse rules of the English language, they explain some of the quirks. 

“They’ll learn that ‘going to’ is correct, but that you’ll hear ‘gonna’,” Villa said. “We teach them more conversational things they’ll need at the track.”

“It does help me a lot,” Alvarez said.

During the pandemic, the BLC shifted away from its normal services to respond to the vital needs of a community that was out of work and, in many cases, unable to access relief programs designed to help those struggling from shutdowns. It distributed food, provided direct cash assistance and set up a remote learning hub for students. 

As the pandemic began to lift and vaccines became more available, the BLC made plans to reopen its doors for English classes. That happened on May 3, the Monday after the Kentucky Derby, and clients eagerly returned. 

“People are taking full advantage, even if they don’t necessarily want to be in English classes,” Villa said. “This is like a little family.”

On Wednesday, seven members of that family gathered in a back room lined with hand-written posters of English vocabulary words. They discussed when to use “has” and "have,” and how to put irregular verbs in the past tense.

Pam Conway, an English teacher at Assumption High School, led the class. A South Texas native, Conway came to Louisville a few years back. She was searching for a connection to home when she found the BLC.

“I was looking to give back to the community at large but also I was looking to connect to my own culture and practice my Spanish,” she said. At the BLC, she found an “incredible community” that she called “underappreciated and underserved.” 

She’s also gotten to know many of the students, greeting them by name as they slink into class a few minutes late and asking them about their children. “I’m so proud of you,” she said more than once. 

The 90-minute class included two interactive games, both of which Alvarez won. Still, he was sheepish when asked if he feels like his English is good.

“Not really, because sometimes I feel nervous when I’m talking,” he said. 

Conway, standing a few feet away, jumped in. “He knows his English,” she said. “We’re just trying to build the confidence part.”