In a small classroom on the second floor of Community Center at Visitation, which refers to itself as “A Beacon of Hope in Kensington,” a group of eager students sit ready for the day’s lesson.
These aren’t just regular school students, however. They are adults from the United States and countries beyond set on improving their English and literacy skills.
“[I want to learn] English for communication with my son,” said student Deidania Nunez.
Lack of literacy and continued education are prevalent issues in Philadelphia. According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2011 to 2015, approximately 33.8 percent of Philadelphia’s population 25 years old and older have a high school diploma as their highest form of educational attainment. Breaking down the population of Kensington into subgroups based on education, the estimates show 29.6 percent, the largest subgroup and just over a quarter of the area’s population, have a high school diploma as their highest level of attainment.
The level of education someone has directly relates to their ability to read, write and be literate throughout their adult life. The 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy report, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, found prose literacy increased with the completion of higher levels of education. For example, out of 19,000 adults surveyed, those who completed less than or some high school scored an average of 207 on the assessment, which put them in the below basic range. High school graduates and beyond scored higher on the assessment and fell in the basic and intermediate ranges.
So how does this apply to the state of adult literacy in Philadelphia? According to the NAAL report, an estimated 22 percent of Philadelphia’s population (about 1.1 million at the time) who were more than 16 years old lacked basic literacy skills. The basic literacy level is defined as skills that are needed to perform everyday activities.
“Basic literacy today means the ability to read, write and speak English; do basic math; use technology and think critically,” said Diane Inverso, executive director of the city’s Office of Adult Education. “In Philadelphia an estimated 550,000 adults, one third of the city’s population, need to develop their literacy skills for the jobs available in today’s economy.”
Many local organizations have education programs in place to help adults in Philadelphia improve their literacy skills. The Community Center at Visitation in Kensington offers different levels of classes in English as a Second Language, literacy, General Education Development (GED) and financial literacy. Located inside the Cardinal Bevilacqua Community Center building on Kensington Avenue, the Community Center at Visitation exists within the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and as a partner of both Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish and Visitation BVM School.
Karen Krogh has served as adult education coordinator at CCV for a year and a half. She teaches English as a Second Language and oversees all of the adult education programs that are offered on a daily basis.
“We focus on what we think are everyday skills that they’re going to use with them now [and] going through their lives,” said Krogh. “Most classes start with a needs assessment where we ask, ‘How do you need to use English now? Do you need to use English to communicate with your child’s teacher? Do you need to use it to figure out the transportation system in the city or to get a driver’s license? To figure out what the safety information posted on your job wall means so that you don’t get hurt at work?’”
A lack of English proficiency can affect chances of employment in the U.S. job market. According to an analysis of the 2010-2012 American Community Survey estimates from non-profit employment agency Philadelphia Works, the unemployment rate for non-English speakers ages 25 and older in Philadelphia at the time was 24.3 percent, about twice as high as the rates of those who spoke English.
“[English] is good for every opportunity here,” said student Nelson Canario.
The Community Center at Visitation is an alliance member in partnership with the Office of Adult Education. According to Inverso, the Center participates in OAE’s professional development training for instructors and OAE matches their trained tutors with the Center’s adult learners. Through the partnership, Inverso has seen the need for education programs in Kensington.
“The Kensington neighborhood is home to many immigrant families who need to learn English,” said Inverso. “They make up the majority of adults who are seeking education services in Kensington. There are also adults looking to attain a high school equivalency.”
The Community Center at Visitation currently offers four different levels of its ESL class due to high demand in the community. Students can enroll in a basic one, basic two, intermediate or advanced level of the class based on their English speaking abilities. Krogh says each class focuses on reading, listening, speaking, writing and real world application, with some variation in lessons depending on the level.
“The basic one class starts off with the alphabet and really introductory skills, like greetings,” Krogh said. “The basic two class [moves] onto something familiar like filling out forms, but they’re not quite ready to start conjugating verbs easily so they have to take it at a slower pace. The intermediate class is the one that I teach and we move pretty quickly. They’re ready to start speaking to each other in conversations, talking on the phone and talking to [their] child’s teacher in a parent teacher conference. The advanced class focuses on a lot of reading and writing, topics like citizenship.”
As Inverso sees it, literacy can connect adults to opportunities for long-term success in modern life and contribute to the overall strength of neighborhoods.
“Research shows a correlation between improving skills and later increases in income, high school equivalency attainment, postsecondary program participation and civic engagement,” said Inverso. “These outcomes directly impact families and their households, neighborhoods and cities. They contribute to a healthy economy by increasing employment, reducing public assistance and lowering health care costs.”
Krogh has found teaching about school subjects, parent-teacher conferences and other aspects of the school system can help erase the disconnect between adults and their English-speaking children. Her ESL students want to learn the language for that reason and many others, from finding work to speaking with their children and family members.
Inverso feels that learning doesn’t stop at adulthood or a certain literacy level for anyone.
“All of us adults are learners, so we all know the experience of successes as well as setbacks, on a daily basis,” Inverso said. “At different times in our lives, we reevaluate our needs because our goals change – we want to help our children with their homework, we want to get a better job or we need to pass an entrance exam to get into community college or a training program Education is an ongoing process.”
— Text, images and video by Morgan O’Donnell.