Tackling Inequality Through Literacy

Tackling Inequality Through Literacy

At a time when most good jobs require specialized knowledge, those who do not master reading and math skills risk facing a lifetime of low-paying jobs or chronic unemployment. They also face barriers to health and civic participation. In Greater New Haven, a number of organizations are tackling the problem, helping individual lives and in the process, strengthening the entire community.

The Numbers

The largest study on adult literacy rates in the US, done in 2003 by the National Center for Educational Statistics, found that about 14% of adults in the U.S. either have a language barrier or can only perform the most simple literacy skills1. Another 30% can only function at a basic literacy level, the study found. About half lack the mathematical literacy (or numeracy) necessary to read a bill or check the accuracy of their wage statements2.

In New Haven, nine in ten public school graduates are required to take remedial English and math classes before they are able to start earning credits at Connecticut public colleges and universities3.

At Gateway Community College, 86 percent of students need remediation before they can take college-level classes, according to a study by the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities4.

Improving Literacy Before College

Recent legislation is prohibiting colleges from offering remedial classes. With the burden of college preparation on the high schools, districts like New Haven are adapting their curriculum to offer remedial classes to seniors before they graduate5.

What is Being Done in Greater New Haven

Outside the school system, organizations like Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven work with adult populations. Many of the students are recent immigrants, according to Executive Director Doss Venema.

"They're referred to us or self-refer when they realize there are too many things in their lives they can't do,” Venema says.”

Omar Downer came to the Literacy Volunteers to help him improve his job prospects. A Hamden High School graduate, he spent more than ten years working in the grocery business and then as an electronics technician. He estimates he was reading at an eighth-grade level lacked basic math skills.

"It kept me from advancing; I'd been offered certain jobs that I felt I had to turn down because I couldn't function at the level needed."

Downer wants to attend college and become an x-ray technician.

"I feel if I have more education a lot more doors will open for me," he says.

The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven brings together more than a dozen organizations including the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Junta for Progressive Action, Read to Grow, the regional Workforce Alliance, and various area colleges and universities, as well as the New Haven Free Public Library and other libraries to promote literacy among people of all ages and backgrounds. The Coalition recruits tutor volunteers and hosts forums and book drives.

"Individual teachers, librarians, parents and students of all ages participate,” says board chair Josiah Brown, associate director of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute.

In 2009, the Coalition worked with New Haven Reads, Concepts for Adaptive Learning, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, the Economic Development Corporation and Science Park to form the Literacy Resource Center as a partnership at 4 Science Park.

Classes are also offered at the New Haven Free Public Library for English as a Second Language (ESL) learners and people pursuing a GED. The library also has tutoring rooms and computers with literacy software.

New Haven Reads focuses on helping children achieve literacy, providing after-school reading and math tutoring for almost 600 children a week.

"We want to help them before they get behind," says Executive Director Kirsten Levinsohn. Family involvement is a key part of the program, adds Levinsohn. “When a parent comes to pick up their child the tutor will walk out and chat for a bit with the parent. That connection is really important and it opens doors."

The program relies on the effort of more than 360 volunteer tutors, many of whom are from local colleges and universities.

"If you know how to read and love kids, we encourage people to jump in," says Levinsohn.

Sandy Malmquist, executive director at the Connecticut Children's Museum and Creating Kids Child Care Center, starts with pre-schoolers. She points to research showing that kids whose parents are college-educated hear 2,153 words per hour, while children of families living in poverty hear 616 words per hour.

To overcome this disparity, Malmquist has focused on getting books into home libraries.

"Our research shows that especially in under-resourced homes, kids don't have books at home that are appropriate for them. The top goal for us is to expose kids to literature in their classrooms, at home, at community events, essentially to make books a part of their world so they see books as both a resource and a wonderful option for how they spend their time,” Malquist says.

Digital Literacy is the focus at Concepts for Adaptive Learning.

"We're trying to close that gap between those who have the skills and tools and those who do not," says Executive Director Curtis Hill, a retired businessman with 30 years' experience in instructional technology.

CfAL works with both students and parents, as well as helping teachers integrate technology into the classroom.

Since 2003, CfAL has given away 1,300 computers -- 1,100 of them in New Haven -- after parents have taken a training class. The organization also works with teachers to integrate technology in the classroom. The focus is on the worst performing schools in the largest urban areas of the state, where about 40 percent of families don't have a working computer in their homes. Curtis formed a partnership with AT&T in 2008, when the company donated 500 high-speed internet licenses that CfAL has given out, and also formed a partnership with Fox Communication.

Even with his organization’s success, Hill says he is always looking ahead.

"Even though we've touched the lives of more than 6,000 children, we know there are a lot more families that need our help,” says Hill. “If we can educate children and make them more successful at learning, chances are we are going to have fewer social ills."


What the Community Foundation is Doing

The Community Foundation provides general operating and program support for a variety of literacy and educational organizations including:

  • Literacy Volunteers for Greater New Haven
  • New Haven Reads
  • The Literacy Coalition
  • The Connecticut Children’s Museum's Creating Readers program,
  • Concepts for Adaptive Learning
  • Literacy Center of Milford
  • The PACK Initiative -- Parents and Communities for Kids -- that includes most of the city's museums and the Hamden and New Haven public libraries.

Works Cited

1. http://nces.ed.gov/naal

2. ibid

3. http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/city_grads_need_remediation/

4. ibid

5. http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/harp_first_school_board#cmt

© The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven
January 2014

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