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Oakland adult literacy students find ways to continue learning during the pandemic

on October 27, 2020

Riley Mitchell loves to cook. When the 55-year-old isn’t bragging about making the “best potato salad this side of the Mississippi,” Mitchell enjoys cozying up with a good book. Since the pandemic, Mitchell started to re-read classics like The Color Purple, mostly for pleasure. But since the library where Mitchell took adult literacy classes closed, being able to revisit some of his favorite books has helped him maintain his hard-won reading skills.

“When they first shut it down, I shut down too. It seemed like the pandemic tried to shut my goal down,” Mitchell says. “But I can proudly say, my tutor and I found a way that we can see each other once a week.”

Mitchell learned to read at Oakland Public Library’s Second Start adult literacy program. The program, which is free and open to the public, has been around for over 35 years. With the help of volunteer tutors, adult learners between the elementary and middle school level receive one-on-one support during weekly sessions to meet their reading, writing and math goals. Mitchell is one of thousands of Oakland residents whose adult literacy classes were complicated by the pandemic.

Kelly Frasier, senior literacy assistant of Second Start, says the program has served adult students from across a spectrum, including English as a Second Language (ESL) learners, persons in transition from prison, adults with learning disabilities, and older African Americans who received substandard education during and after Jim Crow. Black people make up 82% of the participants in the program.

“For a lot of people, it’s more than just literacy, it’s really kind of helping people,” Frasier says. “It’s who you meet and how they become a part of your life. Not everyone is best friends but a lot of people stay in contact with each other. It’s a community and it’s a relationship. And students also lend their talents to volunteer tutors.”

Mitchell says, when he was in school he had a learning disability that he didn’t know about. “All I knew was that I couldn’t do the work,” he says. “I wanted to do nouns and pronouns. I wanted to do verbs and adverbs. I would get it for a second and in a second I would forget it and [class] would move on. After getting ridiculed by the teachers and students, it made me withdrawn in certain ways.”

Mitchell gets emotional speaking about the help he received from his Second Start tutor. It’s a drastically different experience for him in comparison to his early school years.

“It’s been all these years that I couldn’t get my education. I had times in my life where I felt like a failure,” he says. “If you have someone around you and they don’t care, you learn differently. When you find someone that cares, that makes a big difference. Everything just works. You think I’m going to turn that help away? I’m gonna take full advantage of that to help me get my GED.”

Mitchell, who is African American, joined the Second Start program reading at a 4th grade level. He found tasks like reading his motor vehicle registration extremely difficult and would have someone else read it to him. After two years of working with his tutor, Mitchell progressed to reading at a 6th grade level. He can now read his own vehicle registration. Apart from reading, Mitchell has grown in confidence. He no longer carries the shame he felt for years.

“I used to be anxious. I would totally decline if I had to read aloud,” he says. “I don’t have that problem anymore. Now I raise my hand up.”

Before the pandemic, Second Start served around 250 adults annually, Frasier says. Since the shelter-in-place order, that number dropped by 40%.

“I think everybody’s just taking a breather,” Frasier says. “A lot of tutors are also senior citizens. People have their pre-existing health conditions and just other stuff–kids to deal with, taking care of their elderly parents or worrying about their jobs, you know.”

Frasier says the intimate environment and individualized in-person support that students value and receive at Second Start doesn’t translate well to distance learning. When participants sign up, she says, they expect to meet with someone weekly.

“A lot of [students], they didn’t grow up with being on the computer to do everything,” Frasier says. “There’s a lot of education happening online now, but many of our participants might not have the technology in the first place.”

In March 2020, the Oakland Public Library system closed its doors in accordance with the public health order. The Main Branch, located at 125 14th St., is home to the Second Start Adult Literacy Program.

This digital literacy gap is why some education advocates are urging adult literacy programs to incorporate more technology. Dr. Jen Vanek, Director of Digital Learning and Research at EdTech Center @ World Education, an international nonprofit that supports education and literacy in underserved communities, advocates for more digital inclusion in adult literacy programs. Vanek says, in an ever-growing digital world, her focus is to help teachers use technology to support learners. She says the technology gap has been the biggest challenge to teachers since the pandemic.

“It’s really clear. A lot of households without internet, many of those learners are in adult literacy programs,” Vanek says. “Now it’s incredibly dangerous because for these communities to not have the internet, it can be a matter of life or death to them.”

Some teachers at Oakland Unified School District’s (OUSD) Fruitvale Elementary School are trying to break down technology barriers by giving their adult students computers and Wi-Fi hotspots. Katherine Locke, an ESL family literacy teacher whose students are mostly immigrant and refugee women in their late 20s to early 40s, says it’s working.

With the announcement of the shelter-in-place order in March, Locke and her colleagues saw a 50% drop in their class enrollment. But since they started distributing technology, enrollment returned to pre-pandemic capacity.

“My program is for parents of students at Fruitvale, but because we are virtual, we’ve been getting a lot of interest from parents all over Oakland,” Locke says. “We modified our program and decided the most important thing was giving our students access.”

One of Locke’s students, Irma Barbosa, lives so far from Fruitvale, she would not have been able to attend class were it not for distance learning. Fluent in Spanish, the mother of three says before joining the ESL family literacy program, she had trouble communicating with her children’s teachers in English. That’s when Barbosa reached out to a teacher to ask about taking an adult literacy class.

“Normally, my kids go to school. When this [pandemic] happened, my kids needed to take classes at home on the computer. But the problem is, I never in my life used the computer. And my kids needed help but I didn’t know how to,” Barbosa says.

Before COVID-19, Barbosa’s work schedule conflicted with class times. She previously worked afternoons and into the evening. Now that she spends more time at home–and has access to technology through the ESL family literacy program–Barbosa is taking advantage of the classes.

“My first day, I was nervous because I could see there’s so many people who spoke English well. But for me, this is a good opportunity because I’m here with my kids. It’s perfect for me,” Barbosa says. “Now, I’m comfortable.”

Being at home and learning alongside her kids is an experience Barbosa cherishes. It also motivates her. Whenever she makes progress on her vocabulary and assignments, Barbosa’s 5th grade son is there to cheer her on.

“When my son sees me, he says, ‘Yes, mommy, like that!’ and then I feel I can do it!”

The above image was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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