Reading Works aims to boost adult literacy in metro Detroit
Clarence David Baker said when he learns something new, he feels as excited as a kid on Christmas morning.
It happened again last week.
Baker, 53, was at the Dominican Literacy Center in Detroit, a Reading Works partner. Sitting at a table, pencil in hand, he slowly wrote numbers in a notebook as his tutor watched him add fractions.
“I just figured out this problem that I didn’t know before,” Baker said, beaming as he looked up from his work. “That’s the joy that I get. I learned something today.”
Similar lessons are taking place all over metro Detroit with help from Reading Works, a nonprofit organization that aims to improve adult literacy in the region.
About 4,000 people — twice as many as in 2014 — are taking classes, being tutored or learning in other ways through Reading Works’ 10 partner agencies. Topics range from reading and math to employment skills and English as a second language.
Reading Works Executive Director, Hilarie Chambers, said she wants to accelerate efforts to create a workforce pipeline linking students with jobs. Chambers began her new position with Reading Works late last month.
“My No. 1 goal is to make sure we are contributing to the collective effort under way to connect what we call foundational skill development — that could be literacy or basic education — with the work force,” she said. “Once we do that, we’ll be able to more quickly ramp up the number of adults that we are reaching.”
The hope is that adult learners will be able to complete their education and slide immediately into a job for which they’re already prepared.
“My ideal world would be that they’re happening in parallel tracks: that you’re enrolled to finish your high school degree at the same time that you’re getting training for a career that would be appealing for you,” she said. “It’s integrated, and you’re doing both of those completions at the same time.”
A group of community leaders, with support from the Detroit Free Press and several media and civic organizations, launched Reading Works under the umbrella of Detroit Free Press Charities. It became its own nonprofit organization in 2012.
Reading Works’ core mission has never changed: to bolster adult literacy in Detroit and the region so that more adults will be able to qualify for family-sustaining jobs and provide a better learning environment for their children.
In 2015, Reading Works officials set a goal of having 20,000 adults enrolled in literacy programs by 2020.
The organization has given $600,000 in direct support to its partner agencies over the past five years.
There is no reliable data available on the literacy rate in metro Detroit. The Detroit Regional Workforce Fund published a report in 2011 that said 47% of Detroit’s adults are functionally illiterate. Data Driven Detroit, a data analytics firm, criticized the report, saying it was based on “outdated and methodologically limited data.”
Experts agree, however, that adult literacy remains a concern in Michigan and especially in metro Detroit.
“(Literacy) is a foundational issue, in terms of economic opportunities and job placement,” Chambers said.
At the Siena Literacy Center in northwest Detroit, another Reading Works partner, the smiling faces of students cover a bulletin board that hangs in the main office. Underneath the photos are captions like: “Mirlene has a NEW JOB” and “Abda became a U.S. citizen on Jan. 26, 2017.”
The board represents a fraction of the center’s success stories, placement coordinator Cheralyn Suggs said.
The Siena Literacy Center serves about 200 people annually. It focuses on teaching reading and math to an eighth-grade level of understanding, as well as English to non-native speakers.
About 30% of its students were born outside the U.S. Many are from Senegal, Mauritania and other West African countries.
Suggs said students face a variety of challenges, from trying to fit classes around work schedules to finding reliable transportation.
Some also battle self-consciousness and the stigma that can be tied to illiteracy.
“They’re coming in with certain baggage,” Suggs said. “We’re trying to alleviate that weight by saying, ‘This is a place you can come and feel comfortable.'”
Ali Mediavilla, 29, of Detroit studied for six years at Siena before earning his GED. Officials made arrangements for him to participate in a June graduation ceremony at Martin Luther King Jr. High School. He walked across the stage wearing a royal blue cap and gown.
“Now, I’m ready to succeed in life, whatever my next step is,” he said.
Meeting their needs
On a recent weekday, the Dominican Literacy Center bustled as a handful of tutor-student teams sat together at cubicles and in offices.
In one classroom, four women watched an instructor work through division problems. The newly added room is part of a recent expansion at the center, located in the basement of the Samaritan Center on Detroit’s east side. Another room is being renovated into a library.
The center served 546 adult learners in the 2016-2017 fiscal year.
Before starting, students are assessed to determine which classes will best meet their needs.
“They come for a variety of reasons,” Dominican Literacy Center Executive Director Kimberly Williams said. “They know a high school completion is the thing they need to get a better job, or a family-sustaining job, or to get into college. That’s why they’re here. Some folks are retired, and they just want to improve.
“We meet them where they are.”
Baker, who lives in Detroit, landed at the center earlier this summer through a referral. Prior to that, a potential job opportunity at Chene Park fizzled because he didn’t have a GED.
“I’m thinking, once I get my GED, there will be no more asking, ‘Do you have your GED?'” he said. “I’ll be able to get a good job, and I’ll be able to better myself.”
Baker and his tutor, 72-year-old James Sutton of Rochester Hills, work on math skills. This day’s lesson focused on fractions.
When Baker figures out a tough problem, Sutton said, he sometimes laughs and smiles.
“I tell him, ‘Everyone started in the same place,'” Sutton said. “The best person in the world didn’t know anything about fractions at one time in their life.”
Baker has lessons two days a week.
“So far, I haven’t missed a day,” he said.
Contact staff writer Ann Zaniewski at 313-222-6594 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @AnnZaniewski.
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