Thursday, October 01, 2015

Forging the Path Forward for DC's Adult Learners & Re-engaging Youth

 In today’s blog, we’d like to share the work of our colleagues at the DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition that was highlighted as part of last week’s national Adult Education and Family Literacy Awareness Week. DCAYA’s connection to this work stems from our interest in stable, thriving families as foundations of youth success, and as a function of the disparate definitions of accessibility across the educational and workforce opportunities available to re-engaging youth. As councilmember David Grosso, Chairperson of the Committee on Education, aptly noted last week, “If children are not learning the skills they need to complete high school, and their parents do not have their high school education, then we are nowhere near breaking cycles of poverty and/or inequality.” DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson also underscored, “A 2002 estimate indicates that 37% of adults age 16 and over in the District of Columbia operate at the lowest defined level of literacy, or below basic. This compares to national averages of 21-23% of adults scoring at the below basic level.”

Clearly, the need to address the pervasive barriers to success for DC’s disconnected youth and adult learners is profound. We echo the sentiments of our DC AFLC partners in thanking the DC Council for championing the needs and potential of these populations of District residents.

On September 24, the Committee of the Whole and the Committee on Education hosted a joint hearing on “The State of Adult Education and Literacy Initiatives in the District.” The hearing—the first in recent memory to be dedicated solely to adult education—was an important opportunity to raise the issue of adult low literacy in the District. Councilmember Grosso acknowledged this fact by saying, “A conversation about adult literacy and adult education in the District of Columbia is long overdue.” The timing of the hearing was also significant given that the DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition (DC AFLC) and allies across the city were celebrating Adult Education and Family Literacy Awareness Week (AEFL Week) from Sept. 21-26.

As over thirty adult learners, providers, partners and government witnesses testified, a clear picture of the adult education landscape emerged: the need is great, the services are essential, and additional support is needed. Despite the diversity in student populations and programs, providers and learners spoke to the common barriers presented by the high cost of transportation, lack of available childcare, under-resourced programing and limited provider capacity.

Providers also offered up a number of solution ideas, including expanding subsidized transportation to students enrolled in adult education programs, incentivizing evening childcare programs, and investing further in adult education. There was also near-unanimous support for the creation of a State Diploma for DC residents who pass the GED or complete the National External Diploma Program.

Finally, providers spoke to the need for a city-wide strategy for our adult education and workforce development programs. Lecester Johnson, CEO of Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School, summed up the problem by saying, “Providers who work with adult learners have been producing strong outcomes for years, but the disconnections between providers at the various levels have left too many gaps through which our residents continue to fall. Rather than a set of coordinated career pathways, DC residents make their best guess about which door to enter next in their pursuit of higher skills and self- and family-sustaining employment.” The recently enacted Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act gives the District a chance to address this issue head-on through the federally mandated creation of a state plan. A number of providers stressed the importance of capitalizing on this opportunity, and Councilmembers Grosso, Mendelson, and Silverman pressed the government witnesses on their plans moving forward.

The impact of low literacy can be felt across sectors. It can be seen in the emergency room after an adult wrongly administers medication because they can’t read the prescription bottle, and it can be seen in the rising homicide rate, as some turn to crime where no other opportunities exist. From an advocate’s perspective, it was encouraging that five councilmembers were consistently present throughout the five hour long hearing. Our hope is that attention to this important issue won’t wane as another AEFL Week comes and goes. Instead, as we enter a new Council session, we should make a commitment to long-term, systemic solutions that will create adult education and workforce development systems that work—and work well--for all District residents.

Jamie Kamlet is the Director of Advocacy and Communications for Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School (AoH), where she develops and implements strategies to engage policymakers, business and community leaders, members of the AoH community and the general public in promoting adult basic education in the District. AoH's mission is to provide high quality adult basic education in a manner that changes lives and improves our community. AoH is also a member of the DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition.

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