Lan­guage school closes branches

Hun­dreds of ed­u­ca­tion visa hold­ers stranded

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Ron Hurt­ibise

Hun­dreds of ed­u­ca­tion visa hold­ers are stranded af­ter in­lin­gua schools abruptly closed Florida lo­ca­tions.

In­ter­na­tional stu­dents in Florida on F-1 ed­u­ca­tion visas were thrown into cri­sis this week when their chain of English-lan­guage train­ing schools sud­denly closed.

in­lin­gua schools — which op­er­ated branches in Boca Ra­ton, We­ston, Aven­tura, Do­ral, Key Bis­cayne, Co­ral Gables, Mi­ami, Or­lando and Tampa — closed per­ma­nently Nov. 2, and this week sent emails to stu­dents di­rect­ing them to ex­pe­dite trans­fers to other lan­guage schools.

Un­der terms of their F-1 visas, the stu­dents have 15 days to en­roll in a new school and sub­mit cer­tifi­cates of el­i­gi­bil­ity to re­main in the United States.

“We are in trou­ble right now,” said Nidia Sher­bowsky, 51, who at­tended in­lin­gua’s Do­ral school over the past 1 ½ years.

The school sent emails to stu­dents and staff mem­bers on Mon­day no­ti­fy­ing them of the clo­sures, but it pro­vided no ex­pla­na­tion, Sher­bowsky said.

“They closed the door and didn’t give any in­for­ma­tion to us,” she said.

Sher­bowsky, who is from Hol­land, said she pre­paid her $550 monthly tu­ition through Jan­uary and will lose $1,650 if the school can­not pro­vide re­funds. Oth­ers who pre­paid for longer pe­ri­ods lost even more, she said.

As re­cently as last week, the school sent emails of­fer­ing 10 per­cent dis­counts to stu­dents who pre­paid their tu­ition for a year, she said.

Mi­ami res­i­dent Be­len Zerpa said she handed over a $6,850 check on Oct. 31 at the same Do­ral branch for her daugh­ter-in-law, Donatella Penta, to be­gin a year of English lan­guage stud­ies start­ing in Jan­uary.

“They didn’t say a thing” about any im­mi­nent clo­sure, she said. “Pro­fes­sors were com­ing in and out, say­ing, ‘See you Mon­day.’” Penta, who is from Venezuela, is not in the coun­try on a visa and is not en­dan­gered by the trans­fer dead­line, Zerpa said. “We’re wor­ried about the money, be­cause it’s a lot,” she said.

Des Levin, pres­i­dent of TALK English Schools, which has branches in Davie, Aven­tura and Mi­ami, said in­lin­gua of­fi­cials con­tacted com­peti­tors be­fore the clo­sures and asked them to ac­cept trans­fers of the dis­placed stu­dents.

“We said, ‘Yes, we def­i­nitely will do the best we can to mit­i­gate the stu­dents’ losses the best we can,” he said.

Ef­forts to reach of­fi­cials of the com­pany’s Florida op­er­a­tion were not suc­cess­ful on Wed­nes­day or Thurs­day.

Sher­bowsky said pro­mo­tional ma­te­ri­als in­di­cated the school had about 600 stu­dents across Florida. Levin said he heard the school’s en­roll­ment to­taled about 500.

Emails from in­lin­gua alert­ing its stu­dents and staff about the clos­ing that were posted on­line this week iden­ti­fied two com­pa­nies as in­lin­gua’s own­ers: I.F. Mul­ti­cul­tural In­ter­ac­tive So­lu­tions and TLG The Learn­ing Group. The two com­pa­nies are listed along with five oth­ers as de­fen­dants in a fed­eral “ad­ver­sary” bank­ruptcy pro­ceed­ing against Leonidas Ortega Amador, an Ecuado­rian busi­ness­man whose LinkedIn page states he served as a In­lin­gua board mem­ber from Jan­uary 2015 to Jan­uary 2017.

A news re­lease up­dated in March 2017 iden­ti­fied Amador as vice pres­i­dent and man­ager of in­lin­gua Lan­guage School and said he was re­cruited to “turn around their oper­a­tions.”

In that role, he “co­or­di­nated the ex­pan­sion of the busi­ness by ob­tain­ing cap­i­tal from other in­vestors,” among other tasks, the re­lease said.

The Florida Di­vi­sion of Cor­po­ra­tions web­site iden­ti­fies In­lin­gua In­vest­ments LLC as man­aged by MCOA Man­age­ment LLC, 5201 Blue La­goon Drive, Suite 980, in Mi­ami. That com­pany, ac­cord­ing to the di­vi­sion web­site, is man­aged by Mar­cia C. Ortega of Mi­ami.

The Florida com­pany was an in­de­pen­dent li­censee of in­lin­gua In­ter­na­tional Ltd., which owns the in­lin­gua trade­mark and pub­lishes in­struc­tion me­dia per­tain­ing to the in­lin­gua teach­ing method, said Jurg Heiniger, the com­pany’s man­ag­ing di­rec­tor, by email on Thurs­day.

Head­quar­tered in Bern, Switzer­land, in­lin­gua iden­ti­fies it­self on its web­site as a global net­work of more than 300 in­de­pen­dent li­censed lan­guage train­ing cen­ters. Es­tab­lished in 1968, the “in­lin­gua method” fo­cuses on “spo­ken lan­guage and ac­tive ex­am­ples, which make our classes lively and fun,” ac­cord­ing to the com­pany’s global web­site.

Asked by email whether the global op­er­a­tion will re­fund pre­paid tu­ition fees to stu­dents of the Florida schools, Heiniger re­sponded: “We also found out on Mon­day that all Florida schools

“They closed the door and didn’t give any in­for­ma­tion to us.”

Nidia Sher­bowsky, a stu­dent of the school from Hol­land

have been shut down. The man­age­ment of the schools is as­sist­ing their stu­dents with visa is­sues, and it promised to get back to them re­gard­ing re­fund. This in­for­ma­tion was sent to the stu­dents yes­ter­day. I hope that a so­lu­tion will be found for all of them.”

How­ever, Zerpa and Sher­bowsky said they’ve re­ceived no com­mu­ni­ca­tion from the Florida com­pany re­gard­ing re­funds.

Do­minic Hal­ley-Roarke, re­cently hired as a teacher at the school’s Key Bis­cayne branch, said he knew some­thing was wrong when he didn’t re­ceive his first pay­check in the mail in mid-Oc­to­ber as promised. “They told us to­mor­row, to­mor­row, to­mor­row,” he said.

Hal­ley-Roarke said he is still owed a $720 pay­check from his last two weeks of work at the school.

Levin said the Florid­abased in­lin­gua com­pany was a “pretty big player” in the in­dus­try of pri­vate schools that serve stu­dents with ed­u­ca­tion visas. But the in­dus­try over­all has suf­fered in re­cent years, as the United States has been ap­prov­ing a lower per­cent­age of visas, tak­ing longer to process ap­pli­ca­tions, and charg­ing higher fees.

Ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics main­tained by the U.S. Depart­ment of State, the num­ber of F-1 ed­u­ca­tional visas ap­proved by the United States fell from 644,233 in 2015 to 393,573 in 2017.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s tough­ened stance on im­mi­gra­tion might be part of the rea­son, he said.

Com­pe­ti­tion is an­other rea­son, ac­cord­ing to Al­lan Good­man, pres­i­dent of the non­profit In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Ed­u­ca­tion in a CNNMoney.com story. Coun­tries such as Canada, Ger­many and Aus­tralia are mak­ing it eas­ier for stu­dents to stay in those coun­tries af­ter they grad­u­ate and join the work force, the story said.

Other South Florida lan­guage schools work­ing to en­roll for­mer in­lin­gua stu­dents in­clude Uceda School, which has 25 lo­ca­tions in the United States, in­clud­ing in Mi­ami Beach, Boca Ra­ton, We­ston and West Palm Beach.

“We are sad­dened by the fact this event hap­pened and may be af­fect­ing stu­dents,” CEO Charo Uceda said by phone on Wed­nes­day. The school is of­fer­ing to trans­fer in­lin­gua stu­dents for free and give them four weeks’ worth of free tu­ition, Uceda said.

An­other is OHLA Lan­guage Schools in Co­ral Gables, Key Bis­cayne, Boca Ra­ton and Or­lando.

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