What Does Adult Education Look Like in Pittsburgh?
Literacy Pittsburgh’s mission goes beyond teaching people to read — but that mission remains a pressing concern.
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While hundreds of students pass through Literacy Pittsburgh’s Downtown headquarters daily, the organization accommodates students meeting at locations throughout the region.
Program availability is dictated by student demand — most recently, preparation for the citizenship test. “Wherever 10 or more people will come together and commit to having a class, we’ll be there. That’s a flexibility that we’re known for,” Block says.
There is also corporate demand that Literacy Pittsburgh meets via on-site training in workplace literacy, which includes English, math, writing, workplace communication skills and cultural awareness. For instance, the Westin Convention Center hired Literacy Pittsburgh to work with its housekeeping staff. Since then, Block says, the turnover rate has dropped dramatically. It used to be that companies were only willing to entertain such services if they were subsidized. Now, they’re more willing to front the cost, since the payoff is high.
Literacy Pittsburgh students have a few options for the organization’s flagship programs. Classes in the Downtown office are taught by staff members. Groups and one-on-one opportunities are available throughout the community by more than 650 volunteers, who are trained and monitored by coordinators for quality control. The program also hosts 22 Compass AmeriCorps members, who provided 38,000 hours of service last year. More than 200 community partnerships — with libraries, churches, coffee shops and other locations — provide space and additional resources for volunteers and students.
Even with all of this support, there is still a 200-person waitlist. “It’s very much a hidden issue to a lot of people,” Block says.
In addition to teaching reading and writing skills, Literacy Pittsburgh offers a range of training including career counseling and immigrant services.
Nationally, approximately 15 percent of adults struggle with low literacy or English language skills. About 40 percent do not have the necessary skills for postsecondary education, which can also keep them from career advancement. In Pennsylvania, 700,000 adults of working age (18 to 65) do not have a high school diploma. At a hearing in Harrisburg, Block asked state legislators, “Do you want to condemn those people to public assistance, or do you want them to become productive adults?”
According to research from the National Institutes of Health, the mother’s reading skill is the most significant predictor of a child’s future academic performance. A high school equivalency diploma can increase earnings potential by $378,000 over a lifetime. In a January 2017 op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Block wrote, “Adult education results in smaller numbers of people on public assistance, food stamps, unemployment compensation and other government benefits. One study says the return to the economy is $8 for each dollar invested.”
While all of Literacy Pittsburgh’s programs are free to the 4,500 students served each year, the annual cost to the organization for each student is $625. By the study’s metric, that’s a $22.5 million economic return.
A colleague of Block’s described adult education as “double-duty dollars.” When a child sees a parent learning, that child retains the importance of studying in their own education. Family literacy programs give parents not only the opportunity to better their own education, but also to do so at the same time as their young children, which removes the childcare barrier. “It becomes a kind of parenting education as well as literacy,” says Block. “Now they’re learning how to play and teach their child.”
“It’s really apparent when we’re able to see the impact that the organization has,” Singery says. Literacy Pittsburgh boasts that 74 percent of students report increased confidence with their English, reading, writing or math skills; after 50 instructional hours, 71 percent show improvement on standardized tests.
“Every time we’re able to provide services to these individuals, they’re able to come out on the other side stronger economically,” he says. “We can slowly help raise the tide of success and go back to our mission — better lives through learning — one student at a time.”