Amy Goodman is executive director of Washtenaw Literacy
a volunteer-based organization providing free literacy instruction customized to the needs of adults throughout Washtenaw County. It is one of Michigan’s most established and successful literacy agencies.
Before joining Washtenaw Literacy in December 2008, Ms. Goodman was executive director of the Ann Arbor School for the Performing Arts, the county’s largest nonprofit arts employer. During her tenure, the school’s enrollment increased from just over 200 to more than 1200 students and dramatically increased its donor base. As Founder and Executive Director of the Youth Philharmonic Northwest in Redmond, Washington, Amy started from the ground up, writing and successfully implementing a business plan. Amy is an active community volunteer an an avid field hockey fan
Michigan is at a crossroads. Our industrial economy shrinks daily, expanding an unemployment rate
that reached crisis level months ago. I blogged last week
about what that unemployment has exposed: large numbers
of unemployed adults who are unprepared to transition to a new economy
because they struggle with everyday reading, writing and math tasks
Literacy skills are crucial for success
in the knowledge-based economy proposed for Michigan’s future. These skills are at the heart of sustainable communities. Transforming Michigan’s Adult Learning Infrastructure
a report to the Council for Labor and Economic Growth, explains: "A
skilled workforce attracts higher-end employers and provides the vital
human capital necessary for existing employers to expand more rapidly.
When we meet the expansion of opportunities in the new economy with
an equal or greater increase in the number of trained workers, we can
expect job creation and economic growth. Michigan will be able to attract
employers who strongly value a workforce that has the skills, knowledge,
and credentials required to meet their needs."
That takes investment. But, even
before the current economic crisis, funding for adult education and
literacy was inadequate. While Americans spent, on average, $6500
a year for each school-aged child’s education, for those in need of
adult basic education and literacy services the expenditure has been
only $300 per year.
In Michigan the decline in state funding for
adult education has contributed to our current economic straits:
from 1997 to 2001 our state invested $80 million annually in adult education,
by 2006 that was slashed to $20 million annually, and the worst may
be yet to come. Michigan is ranked 44th in terms of enrollment
in state administered adult basic education programs. (The Council
for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) and the National Center for
Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) (2008) Adult Learning in
Focus: National and State-by-State Data.)
We need action and it starts at the
local level. If the upcoming Washtenaw Schools Millage referendum fails, it is not just school-aged children
who will lose. Washtenaw County public school districts will be
forced to make difficult choices, and services that are not mandated,
such as Adult Education, will be eliminated. Washtenaw Literacy
partners with nearly every public school Adult Education program in
Washtenaw County to support adults striving to improve basic skills. For most of these adults, who support families, the goal is to improve
their employment outlook. As the county’s only literacy council
serving adults, Washtenaw Literacy needs these partners.
Our tutors are called to their service
with an open heart, and our learners come to us with an open mind. Our
county voters can help to underwrite this powerful combination. Vote in support of Washtenaw Schools and know that you’re supporting
a far larger county effort.
Remember: you cannot help someone
get up a hill without getting closer to the top yourself.
There’s a conundrum that faces those of us who direct the services in literacy agencies: the numbers of residents in need (in Washtenaw County that number is estimated at 27,000) outpaces our ability to serve. Yet, we can’t streamline our tutoring processes and be effective for our learners. Classroom settings – teaching groups of adults at once – are efficient and cost effective, but for so many they simply aren’t useful.
Washtenaw Literacy’s core program is one-on-one tutoring. This is the approach our first volunteer tutors used in 1971. The reason we still use it today is because it works. More than 90% of adults in our one-on-one tutoring program reach one or more of their goals. Part of this success stems from our “designer tutor” approach. We train each of our volunteer tutors to plan lessons according to the learner’s strengths, needs and goals and support those tutors every step of the way. Adult learners in our program are motivated because they are setting, and meeting, their own standards for success.
This customized 1:1 tutoring is critically important for illiterate adults who have cognitive or learning issues. Quite simply, these issues can only be remediated with this individualized, labor-intensive and potentially expensive approach. These are neighbors of ours who would fall through the cracks in the system without resources such as Washtenaw Literacy. Either because of low scores on assessments or the incremental progress they make, they do not qualify for service or help through most funding streams or federal student financial aid. For example, adult basic education through the Workforce Investment Act requires one grade level improvement in a year, which is sometimes simply unattainable for an adult with a learning disorder. Federal financial aid for community college is out of the question without passing scores on entrance metrics such as the Compass test.
What happens to those who are left behind? It’s easy enough to plot the trajectory of that life. With ever-decreasing opportunities for employment, illiteracy is a direct path to poverty. According to the 2003 report from ProLiteracy “US Adult Literacy Programs: Making a Difference
,” 70 percent of adults on welfare have the lowest levels of literacy. The report goes on to explain that children of these illiterate and low literate parents “tend to get poor care and poor nutrition at home and to do poorly in school.” And there are surprising health consequences for those who lack basic literacy skills – they’re more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers. In fact, their health care expenses are six times the rate of adults with average literacy skills.
Clearly, the stakes are high for our community and we’re steadily fighting this battle. Washtenaw Literacy, with its 'each one, teach one' model empowers armies of volunteers, who expand this best practice of one-on-one tutoring, on a scale that only starts to approach the problem.
Last month, an opinion piece on annarbor.com
called for action to reduce Washtenaw County’s 12 percent illiteracy rate. It was a thoughtful and heartfelt piece that encouraged readers to volunteer or donate to Washtenaw Literacy
, the organization of which I’m executive director. I was thrilled to see it, feeling that readers of annarbor.com would be particularly keen to address this issue.
Shortly after it posted, the first comment appeared: “I have a very hard time believing that ‘12% of our residents are illiterate.’ Someone would have to go a long way to prove that to me.”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. Reading is so much a part of our lives that we assume everyone of a certain age has the skills. Further, people who can’t read are embarrassed and skilled at covering up. Illiteracy is the ultimate dirty little secret. It hides until crisis arrives – like a job loss. Then, it reveals itself as a strikingly formidable barrier to finding employment.
These are the people we see walk through our doors every day at Washtenaw Literacy. They put their pride on the shelf and come for help so they can find work and participate fully in a society that increasingly relies on the written word. I’m proud to say we’re there to help them achieve that goal.
Last year, Washtenaw Literacy helped 1,588 adults learn to read. It’s wonderful and fulfilling to know this, but frankly, it’s not enough. Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, a passionate advocate for literacy, revealed shocking state statistics in an article in late July
: One in three working age adults in Michigan cannot read well enough to be hired for a job that can support a family.
You read that right: One in three adults in Michigan reads below the sixth grade level.
We have a long way to go to end the cycle of illiteracy in our county and in our state. Step one is to admit there’s a problem. If you want proof, I encourage you to spend a day at Washtenaw Literacy and see for yourself who in this county needs our help, needs your help.
Or, in the words of another commenter to the opinion piece, “Rather than quibble about percentages, why not do something positive and volunteer for Washtenaw Literacy's program? It's simple to look up the number in the phone book -- for those who can read.”