Secret’s out — Norristown Literacy Council opens doors of opportunity

There are different types of best-kept secrets.

Some are things to be proud of. Long-standing mom-and-pop-shops. A block filled with well-maintained homes.

There are others that are secrets in a different sense.

The Norristown Literacy Council experiences both types.

Executive Director Theresa Oliver calls the organization the best-kept secret in Norristown but insists they are not hiding.

“Adult education is not sexy. It’s hard to get donors. The work requires partnerships between the students, the tutors and a long time buy-in,” commented Oliver.

unknown-14The Literacy Council of Norristown provides instruction in Adult Basic Education, English for speakers of other languages, and GED to adult learners in the community via classes and volunteer tutors. The small non-profit works exclusively with adult learners who come from diverse backgrounds (some are Ph.D.’s in their home country).

The Literacy Council trains volunteers to work with Adult Basic Learners one-on-one tutoring for reading, writing, and math. Tudors meets twice a week with students for about an hour and a half in a public place.

Oliver noted the number of parents in programs because their children have a grasp of the language and they do not. It puts parents in the odd position of having their children translate. However, they still are children and they may not understand all of the words they should translate or as they get older. Especially in cases of disciplinary action or the child’s education, Oliver has witnessed parents only getting half the story when children are left to translate during parent-teacher conferences. According to her, Upper Merion School District is a leader on making a concerted effort that ESL parents are getting English classes to support the children.

Oliver experiences the other side secrets, too. She motions to the outside of her office on Airy Street.

“There are still lots of people walking around in this area that fit that the profile of a high school drop out with no GED,” said Oliver. “Someone would be hard pressed to prove otherwise that we have a high performing academic situation going on here. I don’t think so. There are people in Norristown who can and should be working but can’t get in.”

She sees this first-hand from people in the programs and when she travels into the neighborhoods. Some understand their lack of high school credentials dictated their path and they don’t want the same for their children. Most of the dropouts Oliver sees are 30-35-year-olds who dropped out in the night grade.

“There is nothing wrong with them intellectually. As long as they were in school they could probably do the work,” said Oliver. “We all know there is an education gap. There are groups of people who don’t have the minimum education to get a family-sustaining job due to lack of a high school diploma.”

She says through her experience in the position she has observed that they wont get it for several reasons: a bad previous school experience, it’s too difficult, they have managed to survive for this long either through support from the state or “hook or crook.”

“They have resigned themselves to their level of income. A GED isn’t a panacea, but it will open up another door.”

Oliver came to the Norristown Literacy Council as a volunteer. She’s an avid reader who is fascinated with languages and learning. Through her time at the Literacy Council, she heard people’s stories as non-English speakers experiences as they left a home and culture to pursue the American dream. There are disappointments in her position, some people start with the best of intentions but don’t finish, but she makes no secret her love of her work.

“It made my world bigger. I consider these people friends.”

It is the message Oliver received as a child that continues to drive her every day – learning never stops.

“We need to value education and stopped putting a stigma on those who don’t have what we take for granted,” said Oliver. “More would come and ask for help. It’s hard for them to come and ask for help but when they do…they don’t get enough support. It’s hard. When you are an adult, and you know you don’t know how to do something it’s hard to maintain the self-motivation. If you are going to be a participant in a larger society you need to know what’s going on. It requires you to be able to read and understand.”

Knowledge is power may sound cliché, but it’s only because it’s no secret.

Statistics on from the Norristown Literacy Council

  • In Pennsylvania, 48% of adults are at or below level 2, and in Norristown Borough, 56% of adults are at or below level 2.
  • 50% of U.S. adults function at or below the second of five levels of literacy.
  • 1 in 5 adults read at or below the fifth-grade reading level, not high enough to earn a living.
  • The U.S. ranks 10th in literacy out of 17 high-income countries.

Low literacy is not just a problem that affects the individual; it affects society at large.

  • 43% of adults falling into the lowest literacy level live in poverty.
  • Low-literacy adults make an average of 35% of the wage of those at the highest levels of literacy.
  • 70% of mothers on welfare fall into the lowest two levels of literacy, and the literacy level of the mother are an important predictor of her child’s future literacy level.
  • 70% of prisoners are at or below literacy level 2.