The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every aspect of life, including education and literacy.
Literacy Texas and Baylor University Diana R. Garland School of Social Work released survey results last week that identified barriers — lack of technology and education — created by COVID-19 impacting Texas nonprofit adult literacy providers and students.
Leaders of the Literacy Council of Tyler participated in the survey. Though researchers determined that lack of access to technology is a major hurdle in literacy training, they identified a passionate and resilient community of professionals and volunteers committed to Texas’ adult literacy achievement.
The Literacy Council of Tyler provides multiple educational programs for adults. One of the more important ones that has changed the lives of people in the community is the career pathways program. This program has the essentials to take someone from a minimum wage job to an entire career with a new path in their life within a matter of months.
Another popular program the council offers is the English as a Second Language.
Whitney Patterson, executive director of the Literacy Council of Tyler, worked at the nonprofit in 2007 after she graduated college as a volunteer coordinator for over a year. She loved the organization and the mission so much, she went back in 2020 and became executive director.
As volunteer coordinator, Patterson fell in love with the ESL program. Right now, the program serves people from 23 different nationalities within Smith County, who are all learning English as a second language. Patterson said she learned from the ESL students also.
“(I’ve) always been really passionate about education and the many ways education can change individuals’ lives and their families,” she said.
The nonprofit also offers the GED program, so if someone did not graduate from high school and would like to further their education, they can do so at the council by studying to earn their high school equivalency.
Basic literacy is also offered for native English speaking adults who are not able to read and write. At this time, it’s the smallest program. The number of adults who cannot read and write has gone down, but the current group number is about 60, according to Patterson. They are also seeing an increase in enrollment since January.
“Because of all the changes in the workforce, people are either out of work for the first time in a long time, or they might be underemployed, or something has changed within their job and they realize they need their GED, or they need to go a totally different direction,” Patterson said.
This is where she says the low-literacy adults would come to the surface, because they may have been in the same job for so long and perhaps literacy wasn’t crucial to their job.
“Sometimes they just go under the radar and nobody really knows that they struggle so much with reading and writing,” Patterson said.
The Literacy Council of Tyler handles these cases by pairing them one-on-one with a tutor.
“By offering these level programs at very little or no cost in multiple different locations and times and accommodations for people to actually be able to go through them accessible, it takes a lot of partnership in working closely with Tyler Junior College, with churches, Tyler ISD. It takes a community effort,” Patterson said.
According to the survey results released on the pandemic’s impacts on adult literacy, the progress of the adults in the classes was slowed. Patterson confirmed the Tyler location was impacted as well.
“When you are putting an adult learner with a low literacy level in an all virtual environment, you can probably imagine how challenging that is. The major barrier is internet and broadband access,” Patterson said.
According to the study, Texas is ranked 47 out of 50 in adult literacy nationwide, spending an average of $8,350 per student annually compared to the national average of $11,762. Presently, Texas has the lowest national percentage of people aged 25 years and older to complete high school or GEDs. With poverty and language barriers, the strain of the pandemic has hit the underprivileged population hard. Texas also ranks low in broadband access.
When the pandemic hit and everything shut down, the Literacy Council of Tyler had to change to online classes within two weeks.
“The real challenge was reaching out to students, because at that time, everyone was home, everyone’s kids were home, there was so much uncertainty, especially with our students, populations that work a lot of service or hourly or weekly type jobs. They were not being paid, they were out of work. When you’re in survival mode, continuing your education may not be at the top of your list. Feeding your family is,” Patterson said.
When the program changed to a virtual format, about half of the number of students who were attending, dropped their classes. In the summer, some in-person services were reinstated and some came back, but in the fall the council was more successful in holding more in-person classes with social distancing and mask requirements.
However, many locations they used were still closed. As of now, about 40% of students are still online and the rest are able to attend their programs in person.
“We’re still seeing the effects of (the pandemic),” Patterson said.
LCOT is now seeing higher enrollment numbers than they saw last year. Patterson said this may be because of the higher unemployment rate, as well as changing work environments and changing requirements that are needed at places of work.
Patterson said local graduation rates are higher than what they used to be. The literacy level in Tyler, however, is low. Fifty percent of adults in Smith County read below an eighth grade level and 25% read below a fifth grade level.
“We are not going to improve that literacy rate if we don’t invest more into it,” Patterson said.
The survey also found that Texas has the lowest national percentage of people 25 years of age and older, who complete their high school degree or obtain their GED.
“That affects an entire community and if our community doesn’t work together, then we’re never going to improve that. What’s working is when we’re able to partner with other entities in town and in Smith County, we have the most success,” Patterson said.
Patterson said one example of how they’re working on this is by having the literacy council partners with employers to offer educational programs for employees who need it.
“It impacts our entire community, it impacts our workforce, it impacts our economic development. When employers look to come to towns like ours, they look at these numbers. It would benefit everyone to care about literacy rates,” Patterson said.
The literacy council also offers a wide variety of options for anyone looking to further their career or their education.
“There’s nothing wrong with furthering your education and we take pride in that,” said Patterson.
The literacy council works with churches, schools and Tyler Junior College to reach potential students. Enrollments are available every week and Spanish speaking volunteers available to assist Spanish speaking individuals who are seeking to further their education.
The Literacy Council of Tyler is always looking for volunteers to help out with tutors, teacher assistants and administrative tasks. There are no specific requirements to be a volunteer unless helping in the GED prep in a specific subject area. Virtual tutoring is also available. Areas of tutoring the council could use help with is in GED math, reading and language.
Enrollment is open weekly. To enroll, call 903-533-0330. To donate to the literacy council, go to lcotyler.org.