Nelly Valenzuela, wearing a white sports jacket and light blue jeans, walks into class smiling as she holds a tray of cinnamon rolls with the knife carefully placed on top to share with her fellow classmates.
Valenzuela, a Mexican native, has become a regular attendee of the adult English language classes at the Quince Public Library in Tucson where she has gained more than just literacy skills.
“They are my friends,” Valenzuela said as she points to her fellow classmates.
Programs like these are aiming to reduce illiteracy in Arizona where approximately four percent of Arizonans cannot communicate effectively in English and about 530,000 adults read no better than an average fifth grader, according to Literacy Connects.
Betty Stauffer, Literacy Connects’ executive director, said that they are the community organization to improve literacy skills for all ages.
“It just raises the well-being of a community to have people more literate and educated,” Stauffer said.
Arizona has the fourth highest poverty rate among U.S. states with 19 percent or one in five Arizonans living below the poverty line, according to U.S. Census data.
In 2010-11, 41 percent of adults enrolled in adult basic education were unemployed, 31 percent were employed and the rest were not in the labor force, according to the World Education statistics for the United States.
Stauffer said that the more skilled workforce a community has, the more it can bring better jobs that can improve the economy.
“Poverty and literacy are like a hand and glove. It’s cyclical,” Stauffer said. “A lot of ways that poverty perpetuates low literacy and education.”
Margaret Johnson, who is one of the volunteer teachers in Valenzuela’s class said she is a big believer of giving back to the community.
“I see the people usually grow…from getting their citizenship or a job,” Johnson said. “It’s nice to see that progression.”
Co-teacher with Johnson, Ronnie Bergem said that they often get a range of individuals with different levels of literacy skills.
“We motive them to progress and challenge themselves,” Bergen said.
She added that they try to teach the students more than just vocabulary and grammar but also life skills such as how to read and understand a grocery ad.
Anne Petti, past president of the Arizona Association of Lifelong Learning, said that they try to help support students and professionals in directing them to needed services and resources.
“Raising awareness for the people who need it and keeping the funding for these programs are the key two pieces,” Petti said. “There’s no downside in having a more educated or literate community.”
In Arizona, according to the National Literacy Directory, there are over 141 literacy skills programs throughout the state.
According to World Education, adult education programs receive less than 10 percent of the amount of federal, state and local funding that goes to K-12 and less than five percent of what is spent to support higher education. Furthermore, the national, average annual expenditure per adult learner is around $800 compared to the per-pupil expenditure on public elementary and secondary education nationally of $10,000.
Lack of funding can reduce the number of programs available for those in need. This is no different in Arizona, where less than 10 percent of those who need literacy services are being served, according to the Arizona State Department of Education.
“Literacy skills are the bedrock of being successful in life….it really is the foundational piece and we need that,” Stauffer said.
Valenzuela said she still tends to start explaining things in Spanish first before then attempting to explain in English.
“I usually add ‘the’ or say a word in Spanish,” Valenzuela said as she described her ongoing challenges in learning English.
Not only is it about minimizing the barriers for individuals to have access to these programs but also increasing the political will among community members, according to Stauffer, to improve the education system and help increase literacy.
“We as a state, we as a community in Southern Arizona, need to decide it is a priority,” Stauffer said.
Razanne Chatila is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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