Saturday, July 29, 2006

Successful Saturdays: Why Literacy is Important or Adult Literacy is so 1990s

Today's Successful Saturday will focus on Adult Literacy. I have posted a couple of times on the importance of Adult Literacy. This will document how my community changed its perception in 18 months.

When I first worked at my library, many patrons would come up and ask if we had a literacy program. After multiple inquiries in just a few weeks of working there I discovered that we had a literacy program several years ago that was volunteer run. It failed due to lack of support, no new blood, and volunteers just getting tired. The problem still existed, but no one was there to solve it. I always wanted to find a way to restart the program, but never received support from administration. Once I became the administration, I wanted it to be my first goal. The local United Way helped pave the way by releasing a report that states Adult Literacy would be one of their major goals in their strategic plan. This goal was one of three. When domestic violence and services to seniors came up, hoards of people came from everywhere and took up the challenge, but when Adult literacy came up, only the sound of crickets were heard.

Finally, a handful of people met with the United Way to discuss ways to combat Adult Illiteracy. Most of the people and organizations were actually early literacy experts or family literacy, no adult literacy people. What was shocking about our discussion was the fact that Adult Literacy was not funded or supported any longer. Family Literacy and Early Literacy were the big buzzwords. Adult Literacy hasn't been funded since the 1990s and is not a good path to go down. After some research, I found that many Federal Adult Literacy Programs were getting cut as part of No Child Left Behind. I got the general impression that Adult Literacy wasn't cool anymore.

It is difficult in a library when you have so many patrons grasping for any way to find help. We had some old videotapes for Adult Literacy- hooked on phonics type things. I found it embarrassing that a library that is supposed to introduce people to the joy of reading couldn't help an adult who need to learn how to read.

The United Way did a study of the entire county. I felt that this was really a cause of the people, but it would still be difficult for me to cram it down everyone's throat. This is another reason we did our own strategic plan. Again, with people from the community, they came to the conclusion that the library's number one priority should be Adult Literacy. The plan provided attention for the problem and spread the word about what we were doing. Other agencies began to contact us about their needs for Adult Literacy programs. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy came out with a study the summer after our Strategic Plan that stated 19% of our adults could not read at level 1. They could not read instructions on a can, fill out a job application, or read a simple story to a child. With the help of the United Way, these stats, and the help from a host of community members, we formed the Adult Literacy Task Force.

The Task Force meetings hashed out all the things we had discussed before. It will be a hard project. We won't necessarily get support from above or necessarily from funders. It will be difficult to reach the students since we can't advertise and can only do word of mouth marketing. It will also be difficult to hang onto tutors. It was one of the problems with the previous literacy councils. A tutor coordinator would be supposed to work 20 hours, but would really work 40 or more. There was a really strong aversion to doing something that burned out so many people before.

In the end, we decided that we needed to hire a coordinator. They needed to be a people person and highly dedicated. Eventually, they will probably need some sort of vehicle or bookmobile since transportation is a problem in our community. Very big needs here.

After getting shot down in trying to hire a grant person, I decided to reorganize staff so that a staff member would be the tutor coordinator. They would also need to be a master tutor trainer since we are far away from any volunteer literacy program. After inquiring into several programs, we decided on the Literacy Volunteers of Tucson. They trained our librarian for a small fee. She also received further training online at the Verizon Literacy Campus. One year after we finished our strategic plan, we had our first big project, we were ready to accept tutors to train for our Adult Literacy Tutoring Program.

The kicker is that our librarian completed the training right before the library's annual report was due. After the report to City Council, the big banner on the paper was “Literacy Concerns Library”. I touched on this last week so I won't rehash it, but afterward we received several calls from people wanting to be tutors. We ended up with seven tutors. After some further contact, we received four students.

It gets better. We then received a grant from the Library Services and Technology Act providing us with a Literacy Mobile. This will allow the tutor to go into the community and provide assistance remotely. Again, this was covered on the front page of the local paper. The editor to the local paper even wrote an editorial on the importance of Adult Literacy. We announced the program to other organizations. We then received calls from the local Rotary and Kiwanis clubs to provide talks on literacy since it will be one of their initiatives. In the end we received an amazing amount of political, monetary, and people support for our program. A year before this, it was said that Adult Literacy wasn't the way to go, but with some hard work, determination, and luck, we were able to change the perception of the entire community. After giving several talks to groups, we are raising the awareness of this need and how it affects the community on an economic level. If you have a business in town and can't hire workers that can comprehend instructions, you have poor production and accidents on the job. The need is definitely sinking in.

Last week, a gentleman came in and asked about the program. Our librarian came and talked to him, then sat down in a room and did his assessment. It was nice to feel that now, people can come to us and get help. The best part was happened yesterday. I was on the reference desk and I could hear a literacy tutor session. I could hear the student identifying her alphabet, “A...B...C..” and then reading some words from flash cards. It was a great moment.

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