Recent estimates by the U.S. Department Education show more than 298,000 Arkansans lack basic reading skills.
Many adults seek out help from tutors because they never learned how to read in grade school. However, a growing number of adults are participating in literacy programs for a different reason.
“What I’m trying to do is have a normal life and do things I like to do,” said Cristina Randolph, while sitting in a study room at the Main Library in downtown Little Rock.
Most weeks, Randolph goes there and works with a literacy tutor to improve her English.
“The first time I moved here was to work with a friend. I was in Brazil and [my friend] needed somebody to take care of her kids and I came with her here,” said Randolph. “I didn’t know nothing about speaking English when I came here.”
Randolph in many ways represents the new face of adult literacy, foreigners who are fluent in their native language but need help mastering English now that they live in the United States.
She has been an Arkansas resident for seven years, since leaving her hometown of São Paulo, Brazil. Though fluent in Portuguese, Randolph still needs help understanding the words and phrases she reads and hears everyday around Little Rock.
“I feel that this is a challenge for me…when you didn’t know how to speak some language and you are not in your home [country], but I think it’s the best adventure of my life to be with a different culture, different people, and [in a ] different place,” said Randolph.
Tutors with Literacy Action of Central Arkansas, a nonprofit that offers reading skills support to adult learners, have been helping Cristina Randolph overcome basic language and cultural barriers for nearly three years.
When Randolph first arrived in Arkansas, relying on other people for support was one of the biggest difficulties she faced.
“In Brazil I was a salesperson and a manager, but when I came here I had to be a babysitter and that fact was sometimes depressing to me because I was independent and free in Brazil,” said Randolph. “When I came here I couldn’t really drive or work.”
These days, Randolph says she has no problem ordering at restaurants; doing business at a bank; and finding her way around town because of assistance from Literacy Action. The nonprofit even helped her craft a resume and find a new job.
“Now, I’m at Dillard’s and I work in men’s fragrances. I believe I am doing a good job there because overtime I have gotten a raise, my managers love [the job I’m doing], and it’s unbelievable,” Randolph said.
Cristina Randolph’s journey is quite different from the women and men who sought support from tutors when adult literacy programs first started in Arkansas in the late 1960s.
“I come from a long line of school teachers and I just couldn’t imagine a world where you can’t read,” said Betty Harp, an educator who spearheaded a movement in the 1970s to improve the work of literacy councils across Arkansas.
For over 30 years, Harp has been on the front lines of helping adults learn to read in the state. While sitting in a recliner at her home in North Little Rock, Harp remembers her first time getting involved.
“This first student came from the school district and this woman could not read the notes they sent home about her children and we went down to start teaching her. We discovered that she could not read anything and then we began to hear of others,” Harp recounted.
Betty Harp says she has learned over time that educators have to do a better job of teaching children so that they won’t grow into adults who cannot read.
“You may get three people in a room … one of them can’t read at all, one of them can read on a Second Grade Level, and the other one on a Third Grade Level,” Harp said. “They come with the attitude that ‘No one has been able to teach me so far, I probably have something wrong with me, and I will never be able to read.’ To show them that is not true is one of the most worthwhile things I have ever done.”
Back in Little Rock, Virginia Roy helps coordinate the adult literacy program at St. Theresa's Church. She works closely with Spanish-speaking immigrants who want to learn English.
“Some students have come directly from primarily Mexico. They all have some goal in common they want to get better jobs and they want to do better at the job they’re in,” said Roy. “In many cases, what we get are mothers who don’t work or who work cleaning homes so that they really don’t have interaction with English-speaking people.”
Right now, the parish has six tutors serving 15 adult students. All of the tutors have received training and education materials from Literacy Action.
Virginia Roy says practice sessions even helped one student pass the U.S. Citizenship test.
“My Dad was an immigrant from Germany. He came to the U.S. in 1907 and traveled the country, doing odd jobs, and then moving on. He later settled in Jonesboro where he met my mother. I'm sure he had a difficult time until he learned English,” Roy said.
Virginia Roy admits she feels so strongly about helping Hispanics learn English, because all the tutoring work gives her an opportunity to honor her father’s memory.
“So many people say they don’t mind people from Mexico are coming here, but they wish they would learn the language,” Roy said. “Speaking from experience, it’s not that easy to learn a language and these people who are willing to put the time and effort into it I take my hat off to them. I think, especially as an adult learner, it is not easy.”
Cristina Randolph agrees with those sentiments and keeps making progress with her studies.
“I’m blessed because this is a wonderful program for me. I came here. I didn’t know anything about English and now I have a normal life. I can go everywhere I want and talk to everybody,” Randolph said.
For the estimated 30,000 adults, who live in Central Arkansas and lack basic reading skills, Cristina Randolph says help is available if you take necessary steps to get it.
“You have faith and know what you want to do and where you want to be. You have to fight your challenges. Don’t be scared. My experience is sometimes you feel like you can’t, but everybody can…and now I am so happy.”
In 2012, volunteer literacy tutors gave 7,000 hours of their time to help adult students in central Arkansas learn to read.
Literacy Action serves about 250 adults each year and through one-on-one work, about 90 literacy tutors are changing the lives of adult students.
Click here and learn more about the organization’s upcoming fundraiser to support local literacy programs.