Literacy Rochester eyes new growth

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In November 2020, Literacy Rochester learned that LiteracyCNY in Syracuse planned to dissolve operations. The local nonprofit came to the rescue with an agreement to offer adult literacy programming to adults in Onondaga County.

Literacy Rochester’s managed-service arrangement with the Syracuse agency restarts services run by LCNY before it suspended programming. 

“We have worked very closely on and off over the years providing services, working with each other to better programming and curriculum,” says Joshua Stapf, executive director of Literacy Rochester, which works to improve the reading, English language, math and digital literacy skills of adults in Monroe County.

When LiteracyCNY announced that funding issues would force it to shut down, Stapf and his team briefed their board president, saying “this could be us if we aren’t careful, and really pay attention to what we’re doing.”

That conversation resulted in Literacy Rochester mulling ways that it could continue LCNY’s work. With support and advice from the United Way of Greater Rochester, the two organizations navigated the process of setting up an agreement to assist with administration, rebuilding a curriculum and launching new programs.

Today, it is one of several initiatives that Literacy Rochester hopes to grow in the next 12 months. Formerly known as Literacy Volunteers of Rochester, the agency hopes to expand its current programming, offering new options for learners. 

Stapf says Literacy Rochester hopes to provide a holistic education, in addition to reading, math and English, such as health and financial literacy.

“We’re trying to tie programs like that into our instructional programming,” he says.

In a typical year, Literacy Rochester—which operates on a $450,000 budget, most of it from state funds— educates 1,300 to 1,500 learners across its programs. Currently, it is looking to mitigate challenges like child care and transportation that might interrupt learning, by establishing a presence at other nonprofits that provide such services, in addition to libraries, enabling students to keep going. Literacy Rochester is working with the Monroe County Library System to train its volunteers to run computer skills classes such as working with Microsoft Word and Excel.

“All curriculum that they already have pre-built but don’t have the staff to do it as frequently as the community wants it,” Stapf says. “So, they’re going to train our volunteers to do those classes, and to take them out to the branches and other public locations to provide those services. It’s really a growth year for us.”

At the forefront of these efforts lies digital literacy, he says. Literacy Rochester launched its digital literacy program in 2013. Trained volunteers assist individuals with operating devices, navigating the internet, and using software.

“The last 18 months has shown the world that digital literacy needs to be addressed and Literacy Rochester was just in front of the wave as we started the programming years ago,” Stapf says.

The last 18 months also was a time when Literacy Rochester had to make sure its volunteers felt safe. Most of the agency’s volunteers—which total 175—are in the 50 to 65 age group, often at risk for COVID-19 infections.

“A lot of them (were) kind of like ‘I’m going to hold off, until things settle down,’” Stapf says. “And then as things didn’t settle down, we started helping our volunteers become acclimated with technology and using Zoom and Skype. And then on the flip side with our students, not only were we trying to teach them how to read and speak English, we also at the same time had to teach them how to use a computer, and how to use Zoom.”

A normal course at Literacy Rochester translates to assisting roughly 120 students. Last year, the nonprofit—which operates on a $450,000 budget, most of it from state funds—helped 75 students. A big factor for the decline was the inability to work with its partner, Rochester Educational Opportunity Center, to provide remedial classes for students who don’t meet reading and math requirements to join their educational programs. Things were slower as well.

“Traditionally (it) takes six weeks to get a student in for testing, and then matched up with a tutor and then get them off to their first session,” Stapf says. “It was taking a lot longer. It was taking probably about two months, depending on the student and the level that they were (at) to get them to the level where they could function on Zoom or Skype or a Google Hangout to be able to do that face-to-face virtually.”

A close-knit staff of six full- and part-timers made things go smoothly. As did smart management of finances when state funds were slow to come by. 

“We’re s very lucky organization compared to some of the other funded programs,” Stapf says. “We have reserves in our bank account, we have investments that we could fall back on if needed.”

It is not easy to measure Monroe County’s adult literacy or compare it with neighboring areas—stereotypes such as inner-city residents or new immigrants need more help than a suburban population don’t hold true. Literacy Rochester teaches several native English speakers.

“What we’re finding is that everyone talks about generational poverty, but what they don’t see is how that ties into the education aspect,” Stapf says. “When you see a student come out of school in June, and there’s studies been done, that by the time they get back in September that their education level is actually lower. And that’s because there’s no reinforcement over the summer. So, a child (of) a low-literate adult is actually 72 percent more likely to be illiterate or have low level of reading and English language skills than a child of parents that do have those skills.”

Also, people are often embarrassed to admit they lack those skills. Stapf recalls a Literacy Rochester student, a male in his 60s who retired as a certified New York State electrician, who couldn’t read above a fourth-grade level. 

“You have people that you think are literate and functioning perfectly fine, but behind that curtain, they aren’t,” Stapf says. “It’s hard to really get that good, sturdy data to be making comparison between areas.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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