Olney: Back To School

Rice works with James on his study sheet before class begins

Just above the book-lined shelves within the Free Library’s  Greater Olney branch, there is a classroom. Pictures dusted in glitter line the room, as chalk remnants–almost certainly from a previous day’s lesson– show on the worn chalkboard of the classroom. Melissa Rice stands before her students as she is set to go over a sentence fragment from this week’s work sheet. “What’s missing from this sentence?” she asks.

Everyone takes time to look over the sentence again. After a few moments, a student calls out from a table near the front of the classroom and breaks the silence.

Rice works with James on his study sheet before class begins
Rice works with James on his study sheet before class begins

“It needs a he or she or they!” he responds.

“Exactly. We don’t know who went to the beach, but I sure wish it was me,” Rice says, as she provokes a laugh from her students.

It is an unmistakable teacher and student rapport that most classrooms are lucky to have. From the grossly, bright fluorescent lighting overhead, to the multitude of books and games atop the shelf against the wall, the room appears to have all the workings of a typical classroom. The students seem eager to learn as they follow along with their worksheets in hand while their teacher goes over the lesson. It is these students, however, who make this particular classroom distinct. They are here to change their lives for the better by opening a new chapter; they are here to get their General Educational Degree, or GED, diplomas.

According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Education, the high school dropout rate for Philadelphia County is 7.5 percent. This is higher than any other county in the state of Pennsylvania and is more than twice the statewide dropout rate of 2.6 percent. The age range for dropouts tends to vary, but the majority of students fall between the 17- and 18-year-old age brackets when they leave school.

With Philadelphia’s high dropout rate, programs—like the one held at Olney’s Free Library— aim to change the statistics. It is individuals like Melissa Rice who take on the challenge and genuinely want to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Rice, who studied German at Wheaton College in Illinois, got involved with adult education after working in Austria at a refugee center.

“I got to know some women from Iran and Afghanistan there and really became interested in women’s literacy in the Middle East,” she says. “Since I can’t really move there now, I decided to get involved with literacy problems here.”

Rice moved back to Philadelphia after she graduated and, soon there after, came into contact with the Center For Literacy—a place that shared her same drive to help others struggling with learning. Since 1968, the center has been the country’s largest nonprofit literacy organization and includes adult basic education, or ABE, as one of its largest target programs in the city. It was here that Rice became a tutor and eventually took her love for the program to new heights when she was encouraged to take an adult education teaching position by her trainer.

“It definitely is a unique branch of education, but you just do trial and error and eventually you get into your groove,” Rice says.

It is a groove, however, that is not free of its hardships. Rice points out that the true challenge of teaching this type of class is that there is an unmistakable mix of diversity in skill levels. She teaches individuals on a third- grade reading level, to those individuals who have a certain level of high school skills. It is a gap that proves to be a challenge, but one that is worth seeing the lives that are changed.

“A lot of students come here because they want to go to college; they want the personal satisfaction that comes along with it or some are just looking for better jobs,” Rice says. “And I’m glad that I can help them with that.”

With the dwindling economy and high unemployment rate—now at 8 percent for the Philadelphia region—it is no surprise to find someone like James Gorkoyah in the classroom. Gorkoyah was laid off from his job as a driver in Center City over a month ago, and is in Rice’s class so that he can be more appealing to employers while out in the job market.

“Everywhere you look these days, they want a diploma. So I’m here to get it,” he says.

While Gorkoyah finds the material difficult at times, he still travels over from the Nicetown area of the city every Tuesday and Thursday to keep up with the program. It is something that his wife and children don’t even know that he is doing, but something that Gorkoyah knows will help him when he goes back on the job hunt.

Melissa Rice goes over the week's worksheet with her students
Melissa Rice goes over the week's worksheet with her students

“Sometimes I don’t understand things and then it gets frustrating, but I know I have to do it,” he says.

Besides some students needing a high school diploma to boost their confidence level before searching for a job in these trying times, others make their way to the library each week because it is something that will ultimately be a personal triumph.

“I just want to know that I was able to accomplish it,” says Joanna Lyons, a 50-year-old mother from the Olney area.

Lyons dropped out of high school when she was in the 10th grade, and has found her lack of spelling skills to be an issue for her over these past years.

“Sometimes I can read the word, but if I want to go back and spell it, I am more dumbfounded than that paint on the wall,” she says with a laugh. “I just really want to better my spelling.”

It may be a personal feat for Lyons, but it is something that she says her family is very proud of her for doing. Although she was laid off from her daytime job some time ago, Lyons maintains that her presence in this classroom is more vital than working right now.

“Even if someone from my old job called to ask me back right now, I don’t think I would. This is just too important to me,” she says.

It is something that is important, in one way or another, to everyone who steps through the classroom door each Tuesday and Thursday. Whether it is to find a new job or to get the pure satisfaction of finally finishing school, local residents are taking action for themselves and changing the statistics that have plagued the area’s dropout rate for so many years. A quotation on the wall by civil rights activist Cornel West reads, “Each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”

This quote could not be more appropriate for these residents who have made the commitment in their lives and who will, in turn, create that positive difference for themselves.

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