Organizations strive to make adult literacy a priority


Building where International Center is located.

Volunteers in the Financial District’s International Center teach adult English classes that encompass American history, culture, and grammar. Photo: Celine Hacobian.

Eileen Julian walked into her class about the heritage of abundance in America a few minutes early, wearing bright orange square glasses. Her students immediately gravitated toward her and began asking where she purchased them, giving Julian an opportunity to correct their grammar and pronunciation.

At the International Center of Catholic Charities Community Services, Julian and Luise Palace teach classes and facilitate conversations among adults from foreign countries who want to learn English. On Monday, Julian’s class of 11 students and Palace’s class of 17 discussed topics that ranged from American values to economic concepts.

During her class, Julian asked her students to differentiate between inflation and deflation. A few students eagerly called out answers, but used “deflection” instead of “deflation,” which Julian corrected. The third time, a woman explained that in Italian, the word for deflation is deflazione, which made the correct use difficult for her.

Palace ran her class a little differently, as her students needed more encouragement to participate.

“You all talk in groups, but now you don’t want to talk in a large group,” she said, to encourage them.

In 2003, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 25 percent of adults in New York County, defined as anyone over 16, were “lacking basic prose literacy skills.” The Center included in this category people who received scores of “below basic” and people whose language difficulties hindered their ability to take the test. Since 2003, they have not issued any further reports about the percentage of the population that lacks basic literacy skills.

Illiterate residents find themselves at a huge disadvantage not just in terms of finding work and applying to institutions of higher education, but also in facing the mundane aspects of daily life, including reading street signs, shopping for groceries, and helping their children with homework, according to Kevin Douglas of United Neighborhood Houses, whose offices are located in Midtown West.

UNH is an umbrella organization that partners with 38 nonprofits to provide services to those who need them. Douglas is Deputy Director of State Policy and Advocacy for the organization, which sponsors community centers that provide services, like English-as a second language, to low-income families. The NYC City Coalition for Adult Literacy, one of the group’s programs,works with teachers, libraries, and the Department of Education to improve adult literacy.

“When we have so many people who do not have a high school diploma, that really hurts their ability to retain a job or to get a job, to advance in that job, to make a good living,” Douglas said. “And we saw particularly during the recession, those people who did not have a high school diploma obviously fared the worst.”

Despite the hardships, adult illiteracy does not get a lot of attention.“I think the reason why there’s not a lot out there is, [adults lacking literacy] is not the most sympathetic population,” Douglas said. “It’s very easy to get the public to look at a child and say ‘yes, that kid should have universal pre-K, they should have the best chance to move forward.’”

Douglas believes that the lack of attention on adult literacy stems from a focus on prevention, not remedial programs. “Adult literacy is really kind of a second-chance system and in our society,” he said. “For better or for worse, we have a greater emphasis in the country right now on prevention.”

The International Center was originally an independent organization, but after the recession the group lost its corporate sponsors and decided to close. In response to an article in The New York Times, Catholic Charities contacted the International Center with an offer of sponsorship and paid for their offices. In return, the organization provided an outlet for participants in the Charities’ refugee resettlement program to learn and practice English.

At the Center, Palace calls on students, asks them where they are from, and how the values in their countries compare to the American ones they discuss in class. Students in her class come from several countries, including Ukraine, Russia, Algeria and Colombia. The classes use tactics like repeating words as a class and reviewing vocabulary, but the foundation of the class is conversation.

Some volunteers form relationships with their students that survive the conclusion of the literacy programs. Volunteer Katherine Cole still speaks to one of the women she taught one-on-one at the center –a young woman from Japan who in the U.S. because of her husband’s job, and was constantly anxious about leaving her apartment because she did not understand what people who were speaking outside her door were saying. The relationship between Cole and the woman developed to include a role reversal when Cole and her husband visited Japan.

Susan Lichter, who also works at the Center, had a similar experience with a woman with whom she keeps in touch through text messages, although the student has moved back to Japan. Lichter said that a volunteer is like a “mother away from home” for the students. When she traveled to Korea this summer, she experienced the struggles of living in a place without knowing how to speak the native language.

“It’s like you’re deaf, mute, and blind; it’s so difficult to get around or accomplish anything,” said Lichter.

The International Center offers the Immigrant Support Program, which is free, for participants who have recently arrived in the U.S. It includes 35 open classes, 10-week one-on-one conversation sessions, and field trips. The Center also offers memberships, which include individual conversation sessions with a volunteer, as well as structured classes. The costs for this option range from $250 for one month to $800 for one year, according to its website. In the past year, this program consisted of 63 percent East Asian, 18 percent European, and 12 percent South American students. The Immigrant Support Program differed, as 22 percent of participants were from Africa, 28 percent were from Europe, and 18 percent were from Central Asia, while only 13 percent were from East Asia.

Angelica Fajardo has been attending classes at the Center for four months, since she moved to the U.S. with her husband from Colombia. “I like learning about Americans and how you live, what you like, and your culture,” she said. “I don’t have many friends here, so I come here and these people are my friends and I learn from them.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that the International Center is not affiliated with the Catholic Church, but the Center has since clarified its relationship; it is part of Catholic Charities Community Services, which receives funding from the Catholic Church.