"We have students come from all walks of life," said Jill Hall, director of the Prince George's Community College Literacy Connection. "Young people who get pushed through the public school system and come out without the necessary skills to enter the work force; grandmothers who say, 'I raised my babies and now I want to read to my grandchildren, but I just can't' and middle-aged workers who have been laid off and can't get training to find another job without literacy skills."
The Prince George's Literacy Connection recognizes that though people come through their doors for a variety of reasons, they all share an awareness of the need to learn, and determination to study.
"Adults are very motivated and self-identifying. They make a commitment to be that learner, in the face of a lot of life demands and obstacles, such as child care, transportation and a job," said Jacqui Walpole, director of Prince George's Community College's Adult Education Programs, Workforce Development and Continuing Education Department, which also offers GED, group basic English classes and English for Speakers of other Languages programs. Approximately 60 students are enrolled in basic English classes or one-on-one tutoring. Hall said that with 30 tutor/student pairs actively working together, at least twice that many individuals are on a waiting list until tutors can be found to work with them.
For many students, their determination to learn to read and write serves as an example for their own children, Hall said, in a county which has the highest rate of illiteracy in the state of Maryland.
Teaching literacy to adults is not entirely like teaching children, however.
"Adults have a wealth of background knowledge--not sound and symbol, but life experience," explained Hall. "We are respectful of that and know we're tapping into it, to help them make connections."
With that in mind, even the most basic reading materials tutors and students use through Literacy Connection are aimed at adults with mature interests.
Volunteer tutors undergo a two-day training program to learn how to use the Laubach method of teaching written language. The method, which relies on phonics reinforced with visual images, was designed by Frank Charles Laubach, an American missionary to the Philippines who originally worked with tribesmen who had an oral language without a written component. When his funding ran out he returned to the United States and transferred what he'd learned about teaching reading and writing to people who struggle with English literacy, and an "each one, teach one" model of education.
Laubach's concern for poverty, justice and illiteracy led to his founding and promoting literacy programs which have enriched the lives of more than 2.7 million people worldwide since 1955.
This is the Literacy Center's first semester under the auspices of Prince George's County Community College. As a "forward-funded" program through the Department of Labor, Walpole said that it will not be impacted by the current federal budget sequestration.
Tutors are matched with students at a level of English reading fluency with which the tutor feels comfortable, and generally with students who live or work close to their tutors, to make it easier for the pairs to meet for an hour or two each week in some public place. Tutors commit to working with their student for a full year, and to giving a monthly progress report to Literacy Connection staff.
For some students, basic literacy tutoring like that offered at the Literacy Connection is a bridge toward getting a high school diploma through the General Educational Development or National External Diploma programs, which offer alternative ways for adult learners to complete their high school education beyond the traditional classroom.
"GED serves older adults but more and more younger students as well, who either dropped out or repeated the ninth grade several times and when they turn 21 the school sends them to get their GED, saying 'It's easy!" said Walpole. "It's not. In the court system, judges will often say, 'Get your GED by Christmas,' but they don't know the demands of the program."
ESL programs through PGCC serve people from throughout the world, with a wide range of educational backgrounds, but Walpole said that most students learning English as a second language here are from Central America, and illiterate in their own language--a barrier which makes learning English even more challenging.
GED, NEDP and ESL classes are taught by paid staff, not volunteers, with an emphasis on imparting study skills as well as facts.
To get involved with the Literacy Connection as a student or tutor, contact Jill Hall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-699-9770. For information on ESL or GED programs, contact Jacqui Walpole at email@example.com or 301-322-0891. The next information session for prospective tutors is scheduled for 6 p.m. March 18 at the Hyattsville Branch Library.