Literacy group gives adults much-needed skills for success

In recent months, news reports on the "employment crisis" in America and abroad have been all too common. Amid all the grim statistics, however, there are some bright spots. One of them can be found right here at home, in the work of the Blount County Adult Education Program, which has been able to make a real impact in the lives of those lacking the education or skills to be competitive in the job market.

In the last year, 784 students participated in the Adult Education Program's free adult education classes, which among other things teach computer skills, basic literacy, and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). The program's GED classes swelled to 256 graduates in the 2007-2008 year, and 62 students availed themselves of the ESOL classes. Inmates in both the adult and juvenile correctional facilities took advantage of the opportunity to complete their GEDs and better the chances of employment after release. All of these numbers show significant increase over the previous year.

“This teaches them the skills they need to become self-supporting,” says program director Carol Ergenbright of the program’s students, who have a variety of learning and literacy needs. Most of the students who are a part of the adult education program come to complete a GED, which Ergenbright says is “almost necessary for most businesses.” "Speaking nationwide,” she continues, “once a student earns their GED, their earnings go up dramatically." All the program’s GED prep classes are ongoing, and tests are offered at the center every month except July, with graduations held in December and June.

The services the program provides are funded in part by the state, primarily in the form of grants from the Tennessee Department of Labor, and in part by the Adult Education Foundation of Blount County. In 1986, the Blount County Literacy Council was founded by people working within the state’s adult education and literacy to help “fill in the gaps,” as Ergenbright describes it, in funding for Adult Education. The Council was reincarnated in 2008 as the Adult Education Foundation of Blount County. Today, in addition to helping with funding, the foundation assists with grant writing, and student and volunteer recruitment for the Adult Education Program, which operates out of the Everett Learning Opportunity Center.

In addition to the classes, which are taught by full- and part-time teachers supported by volunteers, the center has a guidance counselor who helps students with resumes, interviewing skills, and the job search. ESOL students can also come for help with forms, bills, and other challenges of integrating into a new society.

Students living below the poverty line may also receive help with the cost of transportation, funded by the foundation. “We are a very cost-effective program,” says Ergenbright, and with costs at about $413 per student each year, she’s right. However efficient the program, the funding is by no means guaranteed, and the Adult Education Foundation of Blount County continues to rely on fundraising.

One of the Foundation’s annual fundraisers is the Adult Spelling Bee, which for 14 years running has pitted more than a dozen teams of two against each other in competition. The next Adult Spelling Bee will be held in March of 2010, and anyone interested in participating as a speller or a team sponsor is encouraged to contact the Adult Education Program.

The program has not been untouched by financial strain. It had to postpone adult education classes during July and August due to problems with funding, but even in difficult times, the Adult Education Program has plans to serve even more community members. "We would like more people to take advantage of our services. We’re hoping to be able to grow through more volunteer efforts,” says Ergenbright. “We are going to be relying more this year on some of our volunteers to help us.”

For more information about how to enroll in any of the adult education programs, volunteer, or take part in the spelling bee, call 865-982-8998 or visit http://www.blountk12.org/AdultEdFound/index.htm. The Everett Learning Opportunity Center is located at 1500 Jett Road in Maryville.

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