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Kalamazoo Literacy Council Wants Everyone to Read

Michael Evans / Adult Literacy

Today, knowing how to read is basic in order to get a job. But one out of three job applicants lack the reading skils needed to do the job they seek. The Kalamazoo Literacy Council is stepping up efforts to change that. 
There are more 25,495 people in Kalamazoo County who struggle to read. They may be able read a bit, but not well enough to fill out a job application, read street signs, or a simple story to a child.

Sitting in a classroom where tutors meet with adult learners in the Goodwill complex on Alcott, a building that houses a number of agencies that help people who are trying to keep ahead of life's crises, Michael Evans talks about the Kalamazoo Literacy Council and what it's doing to change that number. Because everyone needs to read.

For 40 years, the organization has been teaching adults to read, following the each-one, teach-one model. A single volunteer works with a single person who wants to learn to read.

Evans says it's this model that has helped keep the organization going through the years as funding has ebbed and flowed. For the organization's first 36 years, it was entirely a volunteer effort.

The Literacy Council uses volunteers to train tutor, to be tutors, to asses individuals to determine their reading needs, to match students and tutors, and work with student and tutor teams to monitor their progress.

In 2010, the Literacy Council had 49 tutors and 55 learners. Three years later it had 170 tutors and 240 learners. While the increase is dramatic, Evans says more needs to be done.

"Changing the lives of a few is valuable, but we're determined to make a significant impact," Evans says.

When Evans was hired to be executive director in 2010 one of the first things he did was to go through the training to be a tutor so he could see for himself how the program worked and he was pleased to see how effective it could be. 

He also was asked to better coordinate services for adult learners by bringing together organizations working to reduce illiteracy in Kalamazoo County. A group of 14 different organizations were identified as working toward that goal. Kalamazoo Adult Education, English as a Second Language programs at the community college level, Goodwill Industries, Workforce Development at Michigan Works! and others all had programs in place.

They began collaborative efforts, so the group was well-positioned when the Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo was announced by the Kalamazoo Community Foundation with its support and that of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The Kalamazoo Community Foundation board of directors in 2011 committed $5 million over five years and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation awarded $6 million over three years, to establish The Learning Network as part of what they see as an ongoing effort for a number of years to build a community that values education.

The Adult Literacy Action Network -- the coalition of those providing reading services to adults -- a group that now numbers 30 organizations -- was the first to receive Learning Network funding. It will build on the work the collaborative has been doing, creating literacy centers, developing a parent literacy program, pilot a computer program, and developing a writing class.

As part of its work, the collaborative has had the opportunity to go into the neighborhoods and ask what the needs are. Residents responded they needed computer classes. Computer classes were to begin in March.

The grant also will allow for the hiring of a person who will coordinate the adult learner's activity between the programs.

There is no mystery behind the importance of such work. Helping adults read ultimately helps children learn.

"Parents who can read can get better jobs, can help their their children learn and be more successful in their health and home," Evans says.

When a parent learns to read they can become the first teacher at home. That in turn increases the level at which their children will perform in school.

Evans says research shows the most important factor in a child's academic success is the reading level of his or her caregiver. Children whose parents are functionally illiterate are twice as likely as their peers to be functionally illiterate.

The number of those in Kalamazoo County reading below sixth grade level, the 25,000 who struggle to read, is a real number and that does not move without robust remedies, Evans says.

He compares the numbers of those who can't read to Western Michigan University's enrollment -- the numbers are nearly the same -- and says that as the university has its own infrastructure to teach students the community needs infrastructure where literacy can be taught.

He's not talking about building a new campus but coordinating the many centers where lessons for adults are now being taught and increasing the number of places those take place. Churches, community organizations, and libraries willing to offer space for teaching outside the setting of formal education become the infrastructure needed to end illiteracy in Kalamazoo County.

There are nine literacy centers currently, some for a broad range of learners, including those who are seeking their GED.

There is a prescription to cure illiteracy, Evans says. It is letting people know there is a free service that can help them learn to read. That it is a program that will empower them not, make them feel pitied, or less than those who can read.

Evans wants to see the message on buses, on paperwork where those who need to know will see it, everywhere throughout the community: If you or someone you love needs to learn how to read there is a free service where you can learn.

If the number of those learning to read increase by 20 percent a year, Evans says, "in three to five years we would have a different community."

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