Saturday, January 26, 2013

Having a Heart for Literacy

If I were being honest, I'd have to admit that sometimes I am less than wholly enthusiastic about the thought of going in to work at the Adult Learning Center.  Then I get there and see how hard the students are working to make better lives for themselves and it's all worth it.  How could I not love seeing "Pops", the 65+ year old custodian working to get his degree so that he can become a minister, or Silvia, a long-time student who has progressed from barely speaking English to knowing grammar rules cold?

The Center is holding a fundraiser next month to raise money for our tuition hardship assistance fund.  I was telling Florida Weekly editor Kathy Grey about the fundraiser and some of our students who recently obtained their GEDs, and she said suggested that it might be a good time for the paper to run an article about adult literacy issues in our community.   I put something together and thought I'd share it here.   (For the record, it is MUCH harder to write an article like this than my usual blog post of "I did this.  It was fun." )   Let me know if you're interested in supporting our cause!  


Every day, our lives cross paths with dozens of people.  Statistically, one out of five of those individuals is functionally illiterate, meaning that they don't have the reading, writing, math, and computer skills necessary to succeed in today’s world.  The cost of illiteracy is high on both an individual and societal level.   According to statistics compiled by the Florida Literacy Coalition, on average, workers who didn’t graduate from high school earn 42% less than employees with a diploma.   Almost half of adults on welfare lack a high school diploma.  And welfare recipients without an education are much more likely to perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

Given the relationship between education and employability, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many adult education programs receive funding through grants made under the Workforce Investment Act.   The Adult Learning Center, the adult education arm of the Charlotte County Public School System, is no exception. As a result, the Center strives not only to teach its students the three “R”s but also to provide the tools necessary for success in today’s job market.  Leslie Isley, lead instructor, says, “What we seek to do is provide the critical bridge between knowledge and employment.  We try to lay down the foundation of that bridge by providing pre-employment training, computer basics, and contextualized vocabulary.” 

Many of the Center’s students have focused on health care as a potential career path.  Becoming a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) is often the first step on that journey.  In response to this interest, the Center developed a year-long class whose curriculum teaches students the vocabulary and concepts necessary to successfully participate in a CNA program.   The Center is also offering “I Am Job Ready” workshops to help students develop the interpersonal skills required to obtain and retain a job, including interview preparation and workplace conflict resolution.

When you look at the price of illiteracy, it seems like a problem that warrants redress purely on the basis of the economics.  It costs approximately $1200 to educate an adult learner for one year; cash assistance and food stamps for a family of four on welfare runs over $12,000.  But when you meet some of the students and put a face to the issue, you begin to understand the real value of adult education.  

Adult Learning Center student YvRose Smith’s story is representative of that of many adult learners.  Smith came to the United States from Haiti when she was 17.  She learned to speak English and supported herself by working as a CNA, often holding down three jobs at a time.  In 2005, Smith suffered an on-the-job injury and, at the age of 54, found herself unable to continue to work as a CNA.   With the equivalent of a fourth grade education, Smith’s options were limited.  Smith enrolled as a student at the Center, rolled up her sleeves and got to work.  Over the years, Smith utilized every resource that the Center offers, taking classes, working independently in the learning lab and studying online.  Working to obtain her Graduate Equivalency Degree (GED) became Smith’s new job.  On more than one occasion, people asked her if she had a bed at the school! Two years ago, YvRose was matched with volunteer tutor Terri Jackman.  By that time, YvRose was close to passing the GED.  Working with a tutor helped get her cross the finish line.  At age 61, Smith is applying to LPN programs, hoping to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a nurse.

Student Justin Sullivan is another Adult Learning Center success story.  Sullivan dropped out of high school when he was a sophomore to support his family.  He worked in the construction industry until he lost his job in 2010.   He soon realized that he could not wait around for the housing market to pick up and that if he wanted a job with a future, the first step was to get his high school diploma.   Sullivan became a student at the Center and put his nose to the grindstone, often studying six hours a day before going home to care for his teen-age daughter.  After eight months, he passed his GED, and he is now enrolled in the computer systems technology program at Charlotte Technical Center. 

In 2012, the Florida Legislature imposed a tuition requirement to offset the costs of adult education programs that receive state funding.  Annual tuition is $90 for students who have been residents of Florida for at least one year.   To many people, this is the cost of a nice evening out.  For many of the Center’s students, however, finding this extra money is a hardship.  Enrollment at the Center plunged by nearly 40%, and the Center’s administrators realized that if they couldn’t find the funds to provide tuition assistance to their students, they might have to close their doors.  (The Center receives monies from the State based on the test results of their students.  Fewer students mean fewer educational gains, which translates into lower funding.)  They turned to the obvious—chocolate!  In 2012, the Center held a Chocolate Festival and raised over $5,000.  These funds permitted the Center to provide tuition assistance to more than 115 students who otherwise would not have been able to continue their studies.  

This year, the event has segued into the Have a Heart for Literacy campaign.  The idea behind this fundraiser is simple.  For a donation of $10 or more, participants will receive a box of chocolate treats as a thank you for supporting the Center's tuition hardship assistance program.  Charlotte Technical Center’s Culinary Arts program will be preparing some of the goodies.  (Their margarita truffles were a big hit at last year’s Chocolate Festival.)  The boxes of treats will be delivered on February 13 to pick-up locations across the County, including the Port Charlotte Town Center Mall and Florida Gulf Coast University in Punta Gorda.    

An old adage says, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”   Adult education programs like those provided by the Adult Learning Center seek to teach their students to fish in the sea of life.    

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