Bringing It Back to the Basics
In a High-Tech World Where Many Colleges Are Scrambling to Acquire the Most Advanced Curriculums, Others Are Being Progressive by Teaching the Fundamentals By Eleanor Lee Yates
BALTIMORE — Michael Miller always struggled with school. “I was considered to be slow,” recalls the 26-year-old. After repeating the 10th grade twice — and barely able to stumble through a sentence without tripping over the words — he dropped out.“I got tired of trying,” he says simply. Years later, determined to learn to read and hoping to finish high school, Miller enrolled in Baltimore City Community College’s Adult Basic Education program here, where, after four attempts, he got his high school equivalency diploma.The rest is history. Now enrolled full-time in the 6,000-student college’s credit division, Miller achieved a 4.0 grade-point average for the spring semester and has plans to be a teacher. In fact, he’s been singled out as a national example of what literacy programs can achieve.Baltimore City is among a growing number of colleges with high-tech, cutting-edge curriculums that are focusing more and more on an often forgotten population — those who can’t read or whose skills are minimal.“A lot of people today don’t know how to read. Community colleges are about the community. Our mission is to give people what they need,” says Beverly Arah, director of the literacy program at the college, which includes English as Second Language classes, GED and Adult Basic Education. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that more than 40 million American adults have reading difficulties. But many of the nation’s 1,250 community, junior and technical colleges have read something else into that figure.The colleges, while always eager to help fill a niche in their respective communities, also have seen how seizing upon literacy education can translate into scores of potential new students, additional state and federal funding and enough poignant success stories to, well, fill a book.
Making the GradeFor Miller, the journey to academic success wasn’t easy. When he dropped out of school, he soon discovered that he was qualified for few jobs in an economy where even blue-collar factories are demanding greater skills from their workers. Miller, meanwhile, even had difficulty filling out the job applications.“I dropped out of four GED programs. They just put you in a class and that was it,” he says. But he decided to give it another try when he heard friends talking about Baltimore City Community College’s approach. “I heard people talk about the way it was set up.”He almost quit once more, he says, vividly recalling a pivotal moment at Baltimore City where he stood at the blackboard one day in front of the class as he attempted to write out an assignment. “I couldn’t do it. I got so frustrated. I walked out of the room and just started crying.” he recalls. “My teacher came out and told me that I could do it, that we were going to work through this together.”To his surprise, he stuck it out at Baltimore City. “I didn’t think I could do this. I had really given up on myself,” he says. Miller talked to Arah. “She made me feel important. She told me I was a winner.”Once in the program, he took an assessment test, which showed his strengths and weaknesses. Then he was asked to do something different — sign a statement saying he would come to class and give his best. In other words, he was asked to make a promise.“This was different. I could never commit myself to anything,” he says. But there he was, attending class Monday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. The emphasis on reading as well as math also included weekly computer time. That not only strengthened his basic skills but also familiarized him with computers.He mastered reading skills, as well as basic math and even ended up being a commencement speaker at the graduation ceremony.After hearing another speech Miller made while representing the college, the Maryland superintendent of schools asked him to speak around the state about the benefits of literacy programs and adult education. He now serves as an Adult Education Ambassador nationally. Secrets to SuccessRebecca Hackett, who heads the college’s Adult Basic Education program, believes it is much harder for an adult to learn to read than for a child. “It’s hard to teach phonics over, to go backwards. People want to spell the way they hear things,” she says.At the Baltimore college, students are placed in small groups according to their reading level. Then, two times a week, they have individual time with a tutor.Miller and Arah believe an important reason for the program’s success is the focus on positive self-esteem. Baltimore City brings in speakers that inspire students and sponsors programs that bring students together to support one another.Another plus is the teacher team approach rather than the “one teacher fits all” method. Teachers teach their specialty, be it reading and writing or math. Arah says that also increases the chances of a student clicking with a teacher that can make a difference. For Miller, the teacher who believed in him the most was Jonathan White. He was the one who gave him a pep talk after Miller walked out of class that day in frustration.Baltimore City Community College, like many community colleges, also looks to the next step.“We encourage students to keep going after their GED, even though it might take a couple of years. Staffers talk to students about financial aid and scholarships, carefully explaining what could be a maze of information.”Arah says the school tries hard to make students like Miller feel a part of the college community. They get college identification cards, use computer labs and library facilities. She says that literacy and Adult Basic Education programs often are more successful when held at community colleges rather than at high schools.“I have run programs in the high schools, and our class attendance was atrocious. Students don’t want to go there,” she says. “They associate the schools with past failure.”
Fulfilling a Mission Lynn Barnett, director of academic, student and community development at the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C., says literacy programs are an important community service for two-year schools.“Our mission is college transfer programs, technical or vocational programs and service to the community,” she says.Jacqueline Woods, the U.S. Department of Education’s community college liaison, says the federal agency considers community colleges an integral part of its efforts to place a much greater focus on literacy.“Community colleges are in a pivotal position for this. We are experts in remedial programs and have the expertise in developmental skills. We’re also in the heart of communities,” says Woods, adding that these efforts also help build a cadre of students who continue their education at community colleges.She adds that one out of seven high school graduates do not have the basic educational skills for their jobs. In the past, people often did rote, singular tasks. But today, Woods says, industry has become more competitive in the world market. Jobs may be multi-faceted and workers need strong reading skills.She will never forget the millionaire businessman who discreetly came to her when she directed a literacy program. He never learned to read. “He said he’d become good at getting other people to read for him,” says Woods. Indeed, literacy experts say that many non-readers are clever at hiding their deficiency. They often work harder at memorizing and other ways of compensating than it would take to learn how to read.Woods says community colleges’ literacy programs are especially successful at attracting young adults in their late teens and early 20s who dropped out of high school with poor reading skills.But the programs also target middle-age and older adults who have struggled through life without reading well. They haven’t advanced on the job, or they feel embarrassed that they can’t read to their children or grandchildren.
Making a DifferenceCommunity colleges are participating in the literacy effort through various ways. The federal college work-study program now allows college students to “pay off” tuition by serving as reading tutors under the America Reads campaign. Phi Theta Kappa, two-year schools’ honorary society equivalent of Phi Beta Kappa, has committed its 600 chapters to literacy tutoring.Some community colleges partner with elementary schools, reaching out to children who are beginning to fall behind, says Woods. Some sponsor family literacy programs that help both the adults and the children in a supportive setting.Others partner with civic organizations to operate their literacy programs. Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore., provides a 10-week Literacy Coalition, registering about 200 students a quarter.The program was initiated by community volunteers in the 1980s and later joined forces with Mt. Hood for financial and staff support. The college provides part-time instructors who teach small groups, with about 50 volunteer tutors working one-on-one. A statewide tutor training program gives volunteers a 14-hour training workshop. Many tutors have more than one student.“I think we strength-en the offering. If it were not affiliated with Mt. Hood, the program would still exist, but the support network would not be as much in place,” says coordinator Heather Lang. Students work with unemployed or underemployed high school dropouts. One woman in her 50s entered the program on a bet with her husband. He quit smoking so she agreed to learn to read.In Wilkes County, N.C., the high school dropout rate is close to 50 percent, according to Calvin Dull, dean of continuing education at Wilkes Community College. This is a serious problem, not the least for area industry recruiters who want to provide a first-rate job force to new and expanding business. The college offers customized training for the workforces of many area industries.“We need qualified people, and we’ve got to work with what’s coming out of public schools,” says Dull. A community campaign is targeting the high dropout rate. Meanwhile, the college’s basic skills instructors work with about 1,000 students, most who dropped out of school with poor reading skills. The program helps students bring their basic skills up to a ninth-grade level. Wilkes, like many schools, works closely with area agencies to help students with transportation and childcare so they can attend classes. Its literacy and basic-skills efforts recently paid off with an excellence award from the Department of Education.Two-year colleges throughout the nation also focus on young children. Often community college students in curriculum programs, such as elementary education, serve internships as tutors to local elementary students struggling to read.Bristol Community College in Massachusetts, Calhoun Community College in Alabama and Miami-Dade Community College in Florida are among colleges where elementary education majors spend lab time tutoring youngsters.In other literacy efforts, Houston Community College sponsors a children’s summer program that boosts reading skills. LaGuardia Community College in New York sponsors a College for Children that runs Saturdays during the school year and daily in the summer.Skagit Valley Community College in Washington sponsors a campus reading program for local first-, second- and third-graders that have been identified as needing extra help with reading. College students receive one hour of credit for 30 hours of tutoring.Miller says he wishes he had benefited from such programs at an earlier age. But he’s glad he stuck it out here.“They gave you no choice but to succeed,” he says.
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