April 10, 2012

Partnership Tackles Illiteracy in Tompkins County

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Despite the challenges they face in their work, members of Tompkins Learning Partners said they are doing their best to forge strong personal relationships with their students.

“We start where the student is,” said Arline Woolley, Adult Basic Education coordinator at TLP.

Founded in 1983, TLP has spent nearly 30 years teaching adults and non-native English speakers in the Tompkins County area, according to David Smith, director of TLP. When the organization began its work, it was called Literacy Volunteers, a name it shared with many tutoring groups at the time. TLP later changed its name so it would not label community members as illiterate, Smith said.

The approximately 100 volunteers who work at TLP include graduate students, undergraduates from Ithaca College and residents of the city of Ithaca. The staff provides assistance to individuals from the Lansing Residential Center, the MacCormick Secure Center, Incarcerated Youth Services and other Tompkins County organizations, Woolley said.

Tutors and students are asked to commit to a one-year relationship, during which the pair tends to develop a strong bond, according to English as a second language coordinator Sarah White.

“Tutors go to naturalization ceremonies, meet students’ families and learn a lot about those who they teach,” White said.

White also said she has noticed that the relationships forged tend to last, though she added that not all aspects of teaching are easy.

Woolley echoed this sentiment, saying that it is not always easy for adults to admit that they do not know how to read.

“For someone who has been born in this country, for whom the system has failed, it takes courage for them to walk through the door and say they don’t know how to do what they want to do,” she said.

Woolley said that the adults and incarcerated youth who participate in the program have needs ranging from finding jobs to accessing opportunities in higher education. Others enter the program looking for “healthy literacy,” which she said encompasses a basic understanding of everything from prescriptions to more technical medical knowledge. And some, Woolley said, just want to be able to read to their children and grandchildren.

Not only do many illiterate people not reach out to the center, but some struggle during through the process. TLP staff call this “stopping out,” which they said is often a result of the learning process taking longer than expected. White said that English can take anywhere between five to seven years to learn.

Still, Woolley said she hopes TLP’s work with students will help mitigate the stigma of illiteracy. She said many residents in the Tompkins County area have achieved degrees in higher education, and that she fears this fact sometimes masks the reality of those who are struggling.

“It is an invisible disability,” Woolley said. “You can’t walk up to a person and see whether or not they read well.”

Community members often afford more understanding to immigrants than to Americans who struggle with their English, White said. Despite this, she said there are similar misconceptions that immigrants have to overcome.

“People have this idea that if you go to a foreign country for a year, you will just know the language,” White said. “But those people are the ones who went abroad and tend to forget they studied before going abroad.”

Smith said she hopes this enthusiasm will attract more volunteers to the program.

“We are always looking for more tutors,” Smith said. “There are enough people that want to learn; it is only a question of who can help.”

Original Author: Chris Leavitt