November is Family Literacy Month here in Massachusetts. It is one month we set aside out of the year to recognize the pivotal role that parents and family members play in the educational success of their children year round. To kick off our activities this year, I visited the Intergenerational Family Literacy Program in Chelsea. During my visit, I had the great pleasure of witnessing the life-changing impact that learning the English language has had on the adults enrolled in this exceptional program. I was deeply moved by the stories of transformation I heard throughout the morning.
The Intergenerational Literacy Program at the John Silber Early Learning Center in Chelsea is a partnership program between Boston University and Chelsea Public Schools. The program offers English literacy classes to immigrant parents so that they can improve their own opportunities and more fully support their children’s education. The 75 adult students and 80 children currently enrolled in the program hail from 24 different countries across the world and speak 13 different languages. Adults at the Center attend language and literacy classes while their children attend educational programs elsewhere in the center. Each class is staffed with a teacher and a team of three BU undergraduate students who serve as tutors. In addition to these “core” literacy classes, the program offers supplemental instruction that includes computer literacy classes, distance learning classes (learning content online), conversation groups and transition to college courses.
My visit to the Center coincided with a unit on author study. This lesson was intended to allow parents to build familiarity with the authors whose books their children routinely read in school. The writer the group was studying happened to be Arnold Lobel, a personal favorite of mine, author of the popular Frog and Toad series. Small groups of adults, facilitated by the teachers and tutors, practiced reading the book in English as if they were reading it to a child. The group facilitators supervised closely, giving tips about when to start/stop sentences and asking questions in order to maximize understanding of the content. It was exciting to see parents and family members becoming more than observers of their children’s education - they were becoming active participants in it.
Yet, by far, the most moving part of the visit for me was when all of the classes came together for a discussion on the program and what it has meant for each of the families involved. What emerged from the conversation were stories of great triumph and transformation. For these individuals, the capacity to speak English meant that they were able to be more effective parents and take part in the education of their children. Far beyond that, it meant they could participate – participate much more fully in community, in friendships, and in workplace environments. Parents were moved to tears as one after another they described how they could now understand what their doctors were saying when they visited for annual check-ups or how they no longer had to lower their heads at co-workers who were trying to make conversation because they couldn’t understand a word of what was being said to them. This program helped restore their confidence and removed the isolation that came from not being able to speak the common language. They talked about the sense of community within the program, the friends they had made and the accomplishments they had achieved at work. Learning English had changed their lives.
We know that parents and families are a student’s primary teacher and play an indispensible role in the development of children’s cognitive, social and emotional development. Programs like this one equip families with the skills they need to help children succeed in school and go beyond that to increase adults’ competitiveness in the job market so they can earn a living and support their family. The return on investment here is huge, yet there are over 450 families still on the waiting list for this program alone because of a lack of resources for Adult Basic Education.
I cannot emphasize enough the enormous difference that effective adult education programs can make in the lives of families. I felt it in the emotion of the parent testimonies that day and saw tangible results of this program in doors now opened to adults and families through it. There are currently an estimated 1.1 million adults in Massachusetts in need of Adult Basic Education Services and less than 5% of that population is having those needs met. We can and should do better.