Literacy tutors in high demand locally

GLOVERSVILLE – It’s hard enough for a high school graduate to earn a comfortable living these days, but for an adult who lacks even that basic level of education, the outlook can be especially discouraging.

In this region, the number of adults who struggle with basic reading and math is “startling,” according to Lisa Cardilli, executive director of Literacy New York – Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, which offers free instruction for adults who want to improve their educational and career prospects.

The agency sees a much higher ratio of basic-literacy learners than similar agencies in most other parts of the state, where English-as-a-second-language programs are in the highest demand.

“What we see coming through the door is a lot of adults reading at very low levels,” Cardilli said. “It makes for very difficult work for our tutors, though our tutors do a very good job.”

Cardilli said U.S. Census data show the percentage of adults reading below a fifth-grade level, for whatever reason, is 12 percent in Fulton County; in Montgomery County, the figure is 13 percent.

“There are a lot of reasons why people might not do well in school,” Cardilli said, citing learning disabilities, illness and dysfunctional families as examples. “Most of our learners are dealing with at least one of these.”

Though the causes of illiteracy vary among individuals, on the societal level it is rooted in poverty, like most of the social problems affecting Fulton and Montgomery counties. (Federal data show 16.6 percent of Fulton County residents and 19 percent of Montgomery County residents were living in poverty in 2011, the most recent figures available.)

“Every national report says literacy is tied directly to economics,” Cardilli said.

The guidelines for New York state’s high-school equivalency exam – the GED – will change in 2014, and Cardilli says many adults are anxious to complete the test this year for fear that it will become more difficult after Jan. 1. The problem for many students, however, is that they are so far behind that a few months of feverish study won’t be enough to make up for their severe deficits in learning. For example, she said, it isn’t uncommon for a person to approach the agency seeking help to prepare for the GED, only to have the initial assessment show he or she is reading at just a first-grade level. In general, adults are considered unready to prepare for the GED if their skills are lower than the six-grade level.

A few doors down from Literacy New York’s Gloversville office in the Argersinger Building, there is another agency that works with students preparing for the GED. The Gloversville Literacy Zone, inside the Glove City Commons building on North Main Street, is operated by the Hamilton Fulton Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services. It only works with students who have demonstrated they are ready to prepare for the GED. Adults who come to the Literacy Zone and don’t make the sixth-grade cutoff are often referred to Literacy New York, which has a program that covers more basic literacy skills. (Calls to the Gloversville Literacy Zone and HFM BOCES were not returned in time for comment on this article.)

State and federal funds make up most of Literacy New York – Fulton Montgomery Schoharie’s budget, which was about $110,000 last year, though its staff and board of directors rely on fundraising for more than $12,000 of that amount every year.

“We run lean,” Cardilli said, noting she is the Cobleskill-based agency’s only full-time paid employee. She and three part-time employees, along with about 65 volunteers, serve more than 100 learners per year in the three counties.

Literacy New York’s instruction is mostly one-on-one, Cardilli said, but recently the demand has been so high, the tutors have been working with some students two at a time.

“We only ask our tutors to take on one learner at a time, though many of them are willing to give so much more,” Cardilli said.

Taking an “all-hands-on-deck” approach, Cardilli said, she and her two program coordinators also work as tutors when they are not handling administrative responsibilities.

“All the employees tutor,” said Linda Dearwester, who works in Gloversville as the program coordinator for Fulton and Montgomery counties. “It’s part of our belief system; all of us enjoy it.”

To address the recent surge in demand, the agency recently put instructor Ann Avery-Jones on its payroll. A Gloversville resident and retired Broadalbin-Perth Middle School English teacher, she has volunteered as a literacy tutor since 2008. Now, she is paid for her work one day per week, though she continues to volunteer additional hours working with students.

“When I retired, in 2008, I wanted to keep teaching, because I love teaching,” she said. “Over the years, I’ve had some really interesting students.”

Avery-Jones said her literacy learners have ranged in age from their early 20s to their 70s, and each student has a different set of goals.

“We tutor people in every area,” she said. “I think a large number are hoping to get their high school equivalency. In many cases, their math skills are weaker than their reading skills, so we tutor math as well as reading.”

She said one woman she tutored in Gloversville had a science degree from a university in her native country, but she didn’t speak a word of English.

“She had worked in a medical lab in her home country,” Avery-Jones said. “She was the ideal student – she studied so hard and pushed herself. There’s so much motivation among the students, it’s really inspiring.”

Some students work with tutors for a short time, while others will continue for years.

“Sometimes it takes someone a year or more to get them ready for their goal,” Avery-Jones said. “We encourage them to keep moving forward, no matter what.”

Literacy New York tries to match tutors with learners in their own communities, though some volunteers travel, at their own expense, to accommodate students all over the three-county area. Tutors and students meet at the agency’s offices or at public libraries around the area.

Some literacy tutors, like Avery-Jones, have an education background, though volunteers come from all walks of life.

“It used to be our volunteer population was all retired folks, but now people are working longer, and some are working two jobs,” Cardilli said. “We can’t keep up. We can’t recruit enough tutors.”

But for all the demand and all the hardships stacked up against people seeking instruction, Cardilli and her colleagues say they love their work.

“It’s a positive experience for everyone involved,” Avery-Jones said. “It’s serving a great purpose here in Gloversville … For me, it’s inspirational to see how hard people work, their dedication.”

Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at