“We just had an incredible day,” Cathy Otto said.
The coordinator of Payson’s brand new Family Literacy Program was talking about the first ever family literacy class for parents and their children last Friday at Manzanita Manor.
“It was just really exciting to see on the kids’ faces how eager and ready they are to learn,” Otto said. “And the adults are eager to learn too. In fact, one of our Hispanic moms gave her teacher a big hug at the end, and that was the greatest thing.”
Ten children and seven parents attended the initial class, which meets every Friday morning for 10 weeks.
The Family Literacy Program, entirely staffed by volunteers, serves both adults and children by teaching adults to improve their reading skills, which in turn helps their children become better readers, and by promoting parent-child literacy activities in the home.
To that end, parents are given a different children’s book each week to take home and read to their children.
It’s a program that Payson needs very badly, says director Su Connell.
“Thirty-two percent of adults in Payson do not have a high school diploma,” Connell said. “The Payson High School dropout rate is 12 percent.”
Perhaps even more alarming is an illiteracy rate of 24 percent in Payson, compared to 21 percent nationally.
Family Literacy is the newest of five programs offered by the Rim Country Literacy Program. Applying for a $10,000 community development block grant through the Arizona Department of Housing to help fund it, the RCLP explained the need:
“The Rim Country Literacy Program recognizes that adults who improve their literacy skills increase their self-confidence, attain better jobs, become better parents and become more self-sufficient citizens. Many illiterate adults are motivated to read for the sake of their children, which is key because children of parents who can’t read are often poor readers themselves.”
Involving parents is sound educational strategy.
“Parents are their children’s first and foremost teacher,” Connell said. “What we’re doing is helping parents fulfill that role.”
Five programs offered by RCLP
Besides the new Family Literacy Program, which has been in the planning stages for more than a year, RCLP offers:
- Adult basic education, an opportunity for adults to learn to read or improve their basic literacy skills.
- General Education Development (GED), which prepares students to pass a test for a high school equivalency diploma.
- English as a Second Language (ESL), which utilizes tutors and classes to help non-English speaking residents learn English.
- Citizenship Classes, which prepare students to test for United States citizenship.
With a budget of $11,000, all from grants and donations, the RCLP utilized 56 volunteers to service 138 students in 2001. With the CDBG grant and the addition of the Family Literacy Program, that budget is expected to reach $29,000 this year.
Technology aids and abets illiteracy
It’s a need that is growing despite the information age we live in. In fact Otto, who has a masters degree in early childhood special education, believes technology often aids and abets illiteracy.
“Part of the problem is that technology is being used today to dumb down people,” she said. “You go into a McDonalds and you don’t look for words; you look for a picture. There’s a cash register down in the Valley that says thank you to the customer and tells the clerk to give him back four one-dollar bills and thirty-one cents, which can be a quarter, a nickel and a penny.”
But the consequences are much more serious than ordering the wrong kind of burger.
“People who can’t read often mix up their prescription drugs,” Otto said, “and 85 percent of all juvenile offenders are illiterate.”
But the real tragedy is the children who, when they don’t learn to read, can be handicapped for life.
“Children who have reading difficulties in the third grade are highly unlikely to graduate from high school, so we have to be getting them into programs early,” Otto said.
To participate or volunteer
Those interested in participating in the Family Literacy Program can call the Rim Country Literacy Program at 468-7257. RCLP’s offices and classroom is located at Manzanita Manor Apartments, 809 W. Longhorn Road.
More volunteers are also needed.
“Besides people to work directly with families, we also need volunteers who can make bookshelves, coat racks, sand and water tables,” said Connell.
Judging from the reaction of the Family Literacy volunteers following the first session of the program, the rewards are many.
“I’m exhausted, but what a day,” Otto said. “We were able to tell these parents what a wonderful gift they are giving to their children.”