Got Literacy?

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by Clover Carroll

Imagine not being able to read a cereal box, a recipe, or your lawn mower instructions. Imagine not being able to write a letter or answer questions on a medical form.

Jack doesn’t have to imagine this feeling; most of his life, he could not read beyond a few familiar “sight words” or write more than his own name. Jack graduated from Burley High School in 1964, before integration moved all county students into Lane High School. Though he excelled in math, he never quite learned how to read or write. Class sizes were in the 30-40 range, he says, and even though he asked for help, “no one had time to sit down and work with you.”

In spite of this handicap, after graduation Jack got a job at Sperry Marine Systems, where he worked on the assembly line for 44 years while raising a family. “I could read the blueprints because of my math skills, and if a word tripped me up, somebody would help me.” However, he noticed that other workers who could fill out paperwork got better raises than he did. He was not alone, he points out; many he knew, including his mother, shared the painful secret of being illiterate.

Literacy is a basic expectation in an industrialized country with a public education system. Yet, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics in 2003, 14 percent of adults nationwide, and 12 percent of Virginians, lack Basic Prose Literacy Skills (BPLS); 20 percent of Virginians over 25 have severely limited literacy skills (literacyforall.org). That means 1 in 5 can’t read this article.

Not only is it embarrassing to be unable to read and write, it also prevents an individual from fully realizing his/her potential to become a contributing member of society. Illiteracy is closely connected with poverty. If you can’t read, it becomes difficult to complete a job application or medical form, to get a driver’s license, to talk to your child’s teacher, or, for immigrants, to become a U.S. citizen.

“It makes you feel ashamed,” said Jack. “When my cousin’s child asked me to read to him, I couldn’t do it. I wanted to be able to read to my grandchildren.” So in 1988, Jack sought out Literacy Volunteers of Charlottesville/Albemarle (LVCA), which matched him with a tutor who spent almost three years teaching him to read and write. “There’s only so much I could do on my own. I needed help,” he attested. After retiring from Sperry last year, Jack returned to LVCA to work toward an even higher level of literacy. “I want to be able to read the Bible,” he says. “It has some hard words.” Besides the eight hours a month of tutoring time, Jack spends additional hours working with computer programs at the LVCA’s 7th St. office to learn phonics and develop basic skills such as typing.

Celebrating their 28th anniversary of service to the community, LVCA is a nonprofit agency that provides confidential, one-on-one tutoring in basic literacy and English as a second language to adults living or working in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.  This individual attention sets it apart from the adult education classes offered by the city and county schools. LVCA serves close to 250 students per year, thanks to the generous time commitment of nearly 200 tutors, who last year clocked 14,200 tutor hours. Due to major demographic shifts in our area over the past decade, 85 percent of their students are learning English as a second or other language (ESOL). These students might be immigrants resettled by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), migrant workers, or U.Va. spouses and families. The leading languages served by LVCA are Spanish, Arabic, Korean, and Chinese. The other 15 percent are adults who either dropped out of school or, as in the case of Jack, whose schools let them down. New students are expected to work on the computers for a couple of weeks to demonstrate their commitment, while program staff match them with a tutor based on mutual interests, needs, and abilities. “We want to work with people who are willing to help themselves,” says Osborne. “The service is free, but they have to put in the time and energy to learn.”

“Tutors are our biggest need,” said LVCA Director Ellen Moore Osborne, who joined the organization in October 2011 after 20 years of non-profit experience. “We just can’t keep up with the demand for our services. We always have a waiting list of 10 to 12.” Tutoring is not difficult because of the high degree of support LVCA provides. Not only do they supply the curriculum, but Deanne Foerster, Program Director, also guides initial lesson planning to get students on track toward achieving their self-identified learning goals. Tutors do not need to speak their student’s language, and are only expected to work with their student(s) for about two hours per week, setting their own schedule with the student. Tutors also serve as mentors, helping students decipher telephone bills and handle everyday problems.

LVCA provides eight hours of training broken into two sessions, covering a curriculum overview, tips for working with adult learners, and an introduction to available resources. The next training session is planned for Saturday, September 15 from 9:30 a.m to 4 p.m., with lunch provided. “We recruit between 60 and 70 new tutors each year, but we need between 90 and 100. We are always seeking more tutors.”

Tutors experience the joy of making a profound difference in another person’s life. “It can be very rewarding the first time a student drives himself to your tutoring session because he could finally get a driver’s license, or to help a student move from washing dishes to waiting tables—maybe even to owning their own restaurant.”

This fall Literacy Volunteers will move their offices to the newly renovated Jefferson School City Center. The Center will house a diverse group of learning-centered organizations, including the African-American Heritage Center, JABA’s Mary Williams Community Center, the Piedmont Family YMCA child care center, and the Vinegar Hill Café (to name only a few). LVCA’s new space will include a reception/computer area, six private tutoring rooms, a library, and two offices.

The renovation plan is committed to preserving the historical integrity of the building, so the face-lift will improve its look and functionality, but not change its essentials. Huge windows flood the rooms with light, and marks in the wood doorframes made by former students will not be sanded over.

The result of a visionary private-public partnership, the Jefferson School will be rented to its resident partners for five years on a subsidized basis, after which ownership will transfer to them so they can jointly manage it to meet their needs.

We are so lucky to have such an effective organization doing this vital work in our community. The LVCA staff and its scores of dedicated volunteers are making the world a better place by giving the gift of literacy to those who need it. Jack’ children received a better education than he did, and one of them even graduated from college. Now that he can read and write, he hopes to work with seniors as a volunteer himself. “Maybe I can read them the newspaper, or just talk to them. When you’ve been blessed with a helping hand, you want to pass that blessing on to others.”

To learn how you can become a tutor, visit literacyforall.org.