Big Money, Bigger Need

Literacy programs, though underfunded, do have some resources. And, in fact, the state has allocated a half million dollars for teaching people to read and speak English. That may sound like a lot of money, but six social service organizations divide those funds.

Along with Literacy Volunteers of America, the $550,000 three-year grant is shared by the YWCA of Princeton, Mercer Street Friends, Latinas Unidas, the West-Windsor Plainsboro Board of Education, and Mercer County Correction Center,

The grant has an impressive name: The New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development Consolidated Adult Basic Skills and Integrated English Literacy and Civics Education Program, but it is more fondly referred to as “The Consortium.” It subsidizes some free or low cost reading, math, and English as a Second Language instruction. But it does not cover all costs, nor does it help everyone.

Members of the consortium meet regularly, and they have enough clients to go around; they have no duplication problems. “We haven’t found any clients shared,” says Melinna Harris, who directs adult education at Mercer County College’s James Kerney Center in Trenton.

Each program serves a different niche and has different requirements for volunteers. LVMC’s volunteers work with people who need the most help, those who need one-on-one instruction. The flexible schedule at Mercer Street Friends often attracts students who have not been able to meet the requirements of a more scheduled program. The Princeton YWCA provides child care. And Mercer County Community College employs paid teachers to conduct open enrollment classes.

MCCC’s Trenton Campus

Based on the 2000 census, more than 12 percent of adults who live in Trenton — amounting to about 6,500 people — have less than a ninth grade education. Harris hopes to change those statistics.

A 1969 graduate of Morgan State in Maryland, Harris has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from Rutgers, plus degrees in marketing and career counseling. She and her husband, a former FBI agent, have lived all over the country, and her previous job was at the Delaware Raritan Girl Scout Council. “I have been here about six months, and I am helping people with all the skills and knowledge that I have,” says Harris.

In this, the second year of the three-year grant, Mercer County Community College has contracted to serve 467 Adult Basic Education and Graduate Equivalency Diploma students and 300 English as a Second Language students with noncredit courses, all at the James Kerney Campus in Trenton. Trained professionals teach open enrollment classes. A student is tested at the first class and starts learning the following week. Some classes are offered in Spanish, while those

offered in English enroll speakers of many different languages. Those who go through the program and earn their GED can start

college at the Kerney campus or the West Windsor campus.

But one big problem with some federal grants, including the consortium’s $500,000 grant, is that they require the clients to turn over their social security numbers, and this is not a viable option for some. “We try to serve to every student,” says Harris. “We can see what’s available.”

For instance, a new grant from New Jersey Reads provides more than $11,000 for materials plus a part-time instructor for drop-in literacy instruction on Saturdays. The instructor will also be available during the week. Scheduled to begin on Saturday, January 20, the program is limited to 25 people, and social security numbers will not be required.

In the last fiscal year Harris’ program had a total of more than 1,000 students. “Most don’t pay anything, but some students are able to pay $300 for three months,” she says.

Since most of the teaching is done by professionals, MCCC has no formal volunteer training program. “But in our regular classes we do have some students who volunteer and we are recruiting volunteers for the drop-in center,” says Harris. “I work closely with any volunteer, and they are under the direction of the teacher.” Call 609-570-3138.

Princeton YWCA

Volunteers at the Princeton YWCA receive a three-hour orientation plus on-going mentoring by Chandana Mahadeswaraswamy, who manages the program. “We do training in-house, and we also meet with the volunteers and help start them off,” she says.

A native of Bangalore, Mahadeswaraswamy graduated from Stella Maris in Chennai and has a master’s in English literature from the University of Hyderabad, plus a master’s in language arts education and literacy from the University of Massachusetts.

The Princeton YWCA gets state funding and some federal funding to offer more than 25 classes — three levels of ESL literacy and five levels of ESL Core, plus enrichment subjects such as advanced grammar and writing. The program has 170 students, 15 paid teachers, and 35 volunteer tutors. Tutors spend one hour per week with their students, either at the Y or outside.

Students take placement tests and, after 100 hours of instruction, take standardized tests to track their progress. Child care is available for morning classes, and classes are also held in the evening and afternoon. Some students also get tutoring sessions or enroll in free conversation groups. All classes have a fee, though the literacy courses are heavily subsidized, and many of the students are eligible for financial aid. Call 609-497-2100.

Mercer Street Friends

Literacy classes fit right in to Mercer Street Friends’ overall mission, which is to provide compassionate and practical solutions to the problems of poverty and health. This includes providing parenting education with in-home visits to 160 young families. This literacy program is unusually flexible, so its clients can study yet earn a living or take care of their children. It draws those who dropped out of classes that were more rigidly scheduled.

Gay Egan supervises the program at 222 North Hermitage Avenue in Trenton (609-989-1925, ext. 7162.) A Temple University graduate, Class of 1969, she is married to the pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Hightstown, is a former journalist, and is earning her ESL certificate at the College of New Jersey.

One paid professional and one volunteer teach daily classes, morning through afternoon, plus one evening a week. Students include adults receiving public assistance, young adults in the STEP (Safe Transition To Employment Training) program (also known as “Out of School Youth”), as well as those referred from various community services. The students possess neither a high school diploma nor a GED. To be officially enrolled in Mercer Street Friends’ classes funded by the federal grant, they must have attended 12 hours of classes and have a social security number. MSF relies on private donors and other foundations to supplement federal funds.

The levels range from beginning literacy to GED instruction. The subjects include language arts, writing and reading, social studies (including civics and government studies), science, mathematics, plus subjects that might be considered less academic but that are necessary for getting ahead in the world: communication, decision-making, interpersonal abilities (i.e., emotional intelligence), lifelong learning strategies, job readiness, employment search techniques, job retention skills, nutrition and health, and organization and money management skills.

LVMC at Princeton Library

Libraries are popular sites for volunteer tutors from Literacy Volunteers of Mercer County, and Princeton Public Library hosts 35 of them, says Mary Louise Hartman, who coordinates the English language program in the adult services division. LVMC manages the tutor program and the library provides the space — a special language study room on the second floor, equipped with a computer and a CD/tape player.

About half of the tutors on the library’s roster are active at any one time, and they often overflow into other study rooms or even the library’s conference room. Many of their clients are family members of university personnel.

For the library’s new program, Conversation Volunteers, tutors sit in the language study room for two hours, Tuesdays through Fridays at varying times, and anyone who needs practice may drop in.

Other Opportunities

Cecy Jimenez-Weeast coordinates group ESL classes at Latinas Unidas, based at the YWCA of Trenton, 140 East Hanover Street (609-396-8291). Warden Shirley Tyler arranges the program at the Mercer County Correction Center, 1750 River Road in Lambertville (609-583-3553).

ESL classes are also taught through other school systems, such as Princeton Adult School, which does not utilize volunteers. Marci Rubin has grant money for classes at the West Windsor-Plainsboro Community Education program (716-5030 x 5033). Classes at WW-P are 90 percent free for those with a Social Security card and $100 per semester for those who don’t. From 150 to 180 people enroll each semester. Classes (two hours, twice a week) are held Monday and Wednesday evenings at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, and on weekdays at

West Windsor and Plainsboro libraries. Those who want to help can volunteer to read to

the students. Call Diane Taylor 716-5030, extension 5034.

At Princeton University, volunteers are always welcome at the International Center, says Mo Chen, who coordinates the tutoring schedule. So prospective tutors may have to wait to be assigned a student. That’s because Princeton University hires professional ESL teachers for its international graduate students, so only the spouses, and the occasional undergraduate, request help. But for anyone interested in cultivating international friendships, the International Center offers a dozen other opportunities. Call Hanna Hand 609-258-5006, extension 1170.

Chen, who graduated from Princeton University in 1980 and has a master’s degree in foreign diplomacy from Tufts, volunteered for the tutor coordinating job after the 9/11 commission report was published. It makes excellent “people to people” diplomacy, says Chen, when people from other countries meet Americans and bring back a good image of the United States.

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