In Rogers Park, fighting adult illiteracy one on one

Isaiah Thomas, 23, a volunteer tutor at Howard Area Community Center, points to numerous phonetic sounds written across the chalkboard and asks his student to pronounce them.

“We’ve actually had a challenge because she’s from Jamaica and I’m from here," Thomas says. "We both speak English, but there’s different ways of pronouncing words.”

His student is Elaine Barnett, 62, who goes to church, wants to be able to read the bible and eventually attend Truman College. She didn’t receive a lot of education in Jamaica, and when she moved to Chicago she was busy raising six kids. She wants to be able to read and write properly without asking her kids for help.

“I can read a bit, but not to the extent I want," Barnett says. “I want to the extent (that) I can do everything on my own, you don’t want your kids knowing your whole business.”

Howard Area Community Center (HACC), a non-profit, provides educational services to adults with low literacy skills, preparing them for community college and better jobs.  

“This program helps create confidence, enabling people to take control of their lives,” says Maya Marshall director of adult tutoring services at HACC. 

About a quarter of Rogers Park population 25 years and older - 9,818 individuals - lack a high school degree, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. HACC education program serves both the immigrant community and individuals who did not finish high school in Rogers Park, helping them build basic literacy skills.

The education and employment program costs $864,655 and some 370 individuals were served in the education program in 2007. 

Megan Wells, director of education services at HACC, explains the importance of the educational services.

“Adult low literacy is so invisible in the world,” Wells says. "Adults are so good at hiding the fact that they can’t read or write. What we try to do is take away the stigma of not knowing how to read or write.” 

Wells says people with adult low literacy read at a third-grade level and have difficultly with routine tasks, including reading maps, menus and filling out job applications. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 19 percent of adults in Cook County lack basic prose skills, the ability to search, comprehend, and use continuous texts.    

The tutoring program allows classes to be specifically adapted to individual needs and goals. Wells explains the teaching style in tutoring.  “Using their lives as curriculum instead of having a curriculum that is the same for everyone, tutoring allows a very individualized curriculum based on the particular student needs,” she says.

Wells believes that the tutoring program mutually benefits the tutor and the student. “I think in both ways our tutoring program benefits from having the connections between Roger park residents that are in need and those who want to give. Neighbors are getting to know each through the context of education.”     

Thomas, who has previous literacy tutoring experience working with children at a hospital, says he is enjoying his experience at HACC.

“It’s teaching me patience and incorporating new ways that I learned,” Thomas says. He says there are a lot of African refugees and migrants in Rogers Park and many of them are in need of the tutoring service.

Barnett is sure that she will achieve her goal of attending Truman College – as long as she continues working with Thomas to improve her English.

 “I would like to come here and then leave here and take it further,” she says.

Belize native Gilford Harris, 42, came to HACC not knowing how to read English. By working on his reading and writing skills with a tutor, he was able to pass the citizenship test.“ 

"I came from a Third World country and coming here I get help, the tutoring program is very helpful,” Harris says.

Gilford was a successful businessman in his homeland. He says that acquiring more education after high school is difficult in his home country. “You have to go abroad to get a better education,” he says.

Increasing his literacy skills at HACC has also helped him at his job at Sam’s Club. He says working as a baker at Sam’s Club demands basic reading skills to use the computer.

Programs like HACC are there to help people who are unable to get help from traditional programs.

 “We really need these store front, community organizations to give people an inroad into seeing that there is hope to furthering their education,” Wells says.