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Scaling literacy education with the approach of a startup
Keith Mays
Director of Editorial, Public Affairs Kauffman Foundation
Matthew Long
Senior Video Producer, Public Affairs Kauffman Foundation
Andy Miriani
Freelance Video Editor

Scaling literacy education with the approach of a startup

Literacy KC has adapted, evolved – even moved – to meet the need and expand the benefits of literacy to individuals, families, and the community.

250,000 in the Kansas City metro area read at or below an eighth grade reading level, with 60% of those folks at or below a fifth grade reading level. @LiteracyKC 

"Illiteracy" is a word that Gillian Helm, executive director of Literacy KC, doesn’t use often. The people who come to her organization have a range of abilities to read, so she says "low literacy" instead. On top of that, literacy isn’t just about reading – low literacy can impact people on a number of fronts.

"We define it very broadly, in differing terms. Reading, writing, but also math, computer digital literacy, family literacy, and also social literacy – how do you navigate the world around you and how do you use and access information in order to do that successfully?" said Helm.

For people with low literacy, everyday life is a challenge. If you imagine traveling to a foreign country and struggling to navigate street signs, read menus, or fill out a form, then you might have a sense of what it is like to live as a person with low literacy. While you manage to get by, you might be missing out.

14 percent

of people in the United States have "below basic" literacy.

Source >

While people with literacy issues – around 14 percent of people in the United States have "below basic" literacy – do manage to get by, the cost in lost opportunity to them, and to our society, is large.

ProLiteracy, a membership organization supporting literacy and basic education programs, cites compelling evidence for why low adult literacy impacts all of us:

  • More than $230 billion a year in health care costs can be linked to adults not being able to understand and make the best decisions about health information.
  • Low literacy costs the U.S. at least $225 billion a year because of lost productivity in the workforce, crime, and a loss of tax revenue due to unemployment.

For Helm, the numbers hit closer to home. By most recent estimates, 250,000 people in the Kansas City metro area read at or below an eighth-grade level. "About 60 percent of those folks read at or below a fifth grade reading level, making it hard to read the newspaper, help their kid with homework, read doctors' prescriptions, and that sort of thing," she said.

Given the opportunity to help that many people in the area lead more productive, engaged lives, Literacy KC has in recent years made a number of strategic changes in order to offer an increasing number of targeted programs that address specific literacy needs.

"We are a 35-year-old organization, but the last seven years or so has been a lot like working at a startup," she said.

One of the changes was to switch from a one-on-one tutoring model, which was proving difficult to scale, to a classroom model. The organization’s largest program, Ticket to Read, is now offered to groups of adult learners, with a single instructor leading the class and tutors available for individualized help.

Not only can more students participate, but Literacy KC is achieving 85 percent or higher completion rates for its programs, double the rate for typical adult education programs. This may be in part because students have shown they enjoy the social aspect of taking classes with other people who provide camaraderie and support.

Literacy KC

Gillian Helm, executive director of Literacy KC, discusses the impact of low literacy in the U.S., and what her organization is doing to encourage literacy on a number of fronts.

Another aspect of Literacy KC’s growth is an expansion of program offerings.

  • Ticket to Read is offered both to students seeking to build basic foundational reading skills and to those adults and teens who would like to prepare for high school equivalency exams.
  • The Let’s Read program seeks to address the tendency in which low literacy is passed from one generation to the next. This program brings parents or caregivers together with children for a fun hour of reading and activities, intended to introduce reading into the home.
  • Together with local library systems, Literacy KC offers the Career Online High School program, allowing students to earn a high school diploma from any place and time they are able to get online.
  • The new Entry to English program allows non-native people to learn English.
  • The Writers for Readers program, offered in partnership with the University of Missouri – Kansas City, pairs a graduate student in the creative writing program with Literacy KC students to express themselves while improving reading and writing skills.

The Kauffman Foundation, along with a number of other local funders, has provided support to enable Literacy KC to offer more programs to more students.

One more piece of the puzzle fell into place last summer, when the organization moved from a long-time, leaky-roofed building into a new, state-of-the-art space, as part of the Operation Breakthrough complex. The location, near the busiest bus stop in Kansas City, not only makes Literacy KC more accessible to students, but allows the two organizations to have a symbiotic relationship. Operation Breakthrough, which provides childcare for children in poverty as well as other programs, serves a large population of parents who don’t have high school diplomas.

Partnering with Operation Breakthrough allows Literacy KC to "work on this multi-generational kind of approach, so that we can engage those parents in the way that they need, which is a high school diploma, so that they can begin the journey of improving not just academically but also in their employability," Helm said.

Any number of factors can lead to a person reaching adulthood with literacy challenges, Helm said. Frequent moves by families can make it difficult for children of elementary school age to learn consistently, as does prolonged childhood poverty or trauma. For some children, English isn’t spoken at home. For others, learning disabilities such as dyslexia go undiagnosed.

Despite their varied paths, the adults who seek out the services of Literacy KC share similar desires to improve their potential in the workforce, or to better help their children with homework.

"Our students come to us with low traditional literacy levels, but they are so incredibly well adapted. They have survived this long, they have flourished this long, they're very adaptable and very resourceful, very smart people. They just for some reason didn't get what they needed when they were young like you and I by the time we hit third grade," Helm said.

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