Kingsessing: Developing Adult Literacy Provides Opportunities

Never 2 Late students meet every Tuesday and Thursday in the basement of the Kingsessing branch of the Free Library.

Eight years ago, Darrow Lyons’ wife encouraged him to join Never 2 Late, an adult literacy program offered through the Center for Literacy, an organization that provides programs to adult learners.

The 63-year-old South Philly resident has been attending classes ever since. The program is held at the Kingsessing Branch of the Free Library every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon.

“At 17 and 18, I couldn’t fill out an application because I couldn’t read,” he said.  “As I got older, it was like a freak thing.”

Lyons isn’t alone – according to CFL, approximately 550,000 Philadelphians are considered low literate. A 2003 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics reported that an estimated 22 percent of Philadelphians lacked basic literacy skills.

There are 715 students currently enrolled in adult education classes at CFL

Jo Ann Fishburn, coordinator of Never 2 Late, said there is a dearth of adult literacy programs in the city. She added that an issue is finding funding, as agencies typically want to see faster progress and adults learning to read often make slower advancements.

Fishburn, a retired middle school teacher, left the public school system in 2002 and has been volunteering in adult literacy programs ever since. Her long-term goals are to have more resources available throughout the city, including in libraries, prisons and reentry programs.

Fishburn in her classroom.

Fishburn uses a variety of materials to teach her students like Talk of the Block, short, easy stories about relatable everyday activities, and Crazy Cards, a competitive card game to practice different phonics patterns. The students are also split up by reading level and work with volunteer tutors.

Two new resources were introduced to students in the fall of 2017: an online phonics program that may be installed in “hot spots” like libraries and a series of apps designed for the XPrize competition through the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

The students are working through some issues like access to smartphones and if the execution goes smoothly, the apps could open up learning opportunities to people who can’t make it to classes in person, Fishburn said.

“My main objective is that my students learn and I don’t know, some apps may be good and some may not be,” she added.

Wanda Steward, another student, said the apps help her with information retention.

Wanda Steward practices using one of the XPrize apps.

“Whatever we don’t get right, we have to redo it again [on the app], so it’ll be helping me to get it right next time,” she said.

The 47-year-old mother of six had the opportunity to write a children’s book about a story she often told to her kids. Project Literacy helped her to publish the book in September and actor Idris Elba, who collaborates with the organization, read the story on Project Literacy’s YouTube channel. He also FaceTimed with Steward to congratulate her on her efforts.  

Learning to read opens doors both big and small and the joy only grows over time, Lyons said. He now enjoys reading the Bible and works hard both in and outside of class to continue his improvements.

“Every time I come into here,” he said, “I want to grab something to read to [Fishburn] to show her that I’m moving on, I got the ball and I’m running with it now. I just can’t stop.” 

– Text, video and images by Lian Parsons.

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