Nontraditional students get support, education at Literacy Zone in Albany

by Jason Franchuk

On Board Online • September 24, 2018

By Jason Franchuk
Special Correspondent

Rebekah Peters, 34, should have graduated high school in 2002. But the Albany resident never came close to an actual cap and gown until this year.

She was homeschooled and has worked in a family fireplace sales business. After getting married and having four children, she decided she needed more education to be a better provider. But how to go back to school?

Fortunately for her, Albany has an adult education program called the Literacy Zone.

Throughout the state, school districts and BOCES run Literacy Zone programs with community partners. In Albany, Capital Region BOCES runs the program in collaboration with several partners, including Trinity Alliance of the Capital Region and the Albany City School District.

"I can't tell you how thankful I am to the Literacy Zone," Peters said while sitting in a Literacy Zone office in the South End of Albany. She was interviewed a few weeks before an Aug. 23 graduation ceremony. "It feels like I can do anything now. The possibilities feel endless, and I attribute a lot of that to this program."

The program is about to expand thanks to two state grants in excess of $1.2 million. One grant will fund the creation of a new Literacy Zone location in Albany's Arbor Hill neighborhood - a predominantly black area close to the state Capitol. The other will maintain funding to the existing Albany South End Literacy Zone.

Asked how her Literacy Zone lessons have paid off, Peters said it's helped her as a parent.

"My fourth grader was doing fractions," Peters said. ' We were working on them at the same time."

She has her sights set on passing a CPA exam.

Capital Region BOCES Education Program Manager Maria Huntington smiles when asked about the "Literacy Zone" moniker.

"It doesn't cover everything we do," she said. "Literacy is so much more than reading and writing. We also provide workshops on financial literacy, among a lot of other programs. We want to find something that excites everyone. We don't want anyone to just get up and disappear, as if they can't do this."

The mission of the program is to close the achievement gap in communities that have high rates of poverty and residents with limited literacy or English language skills. In addition to educational services, participants have access to a case manager who makes referrals to other community partners, focuses on employment skills and helps with post-secondary transitions.

Peters, for starters, was set up with information to sign up for SNAP (food stamps) and Medicaid. These were things that had her stumped in the past.

“These are social supports that clear the way for advanced learning, workforce participation and higher wages,” said Harris Oberlander, chief executive of Trinity Alliance of the Capital Region, Inc., which runs afterschool programs in the city of Albany and cradle-to-grave, wraparound programs aimed supporting families and keeping them together.

Peters attended one-hour classes twice a week for six months. Others may need more or less. Flexibility is there, along with necessary doses of tough love, says Huntington.

"We don't turn anyone away," said Huntington. About 250 students cycle through each month. Huntington notes that some students take three months to get what they need, and others take around three years, based on aptitudes and the time they can afford to give to the programs.

The clientele here are sometimes called "nontraditional" students, and they range in age. One participant is Randella Elston, who was laid off from a construction data job a few years ago, at age 55.

The location is a welcoming one. The $6 million, three-story, 18,000-square-foot multi-use facility was built with a $5 million HUD grant. Owned by the Albany Housing Authority and run by the Trinity Alliance of the Capital Region, it's a collaboration involving local colleges, businesses and community groups.

Literacy Zones throughout the state have been placed in their particular locations to meet census-based needs. Huntington said they target areas with low literacy and English proficiency skills.

In the last six months of 2015, 426 people completed a career advancement course and developed an individual education or employment plan at the Albany center. Of those, 161 completed a certificate, found a job or enrolled in college, according to the Albany Times Union. In addition, 81 people earned high school equivalency diplomas, 60 completed English as a Second Language courses and more than 50 children participated in an early childhood language development program called Race to 10,000 Words.

Huntington said the numbers have only increased from there.

In 2013, program coordinators applied for Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding. The Literacy Zone funding was contingent on also securing funding for adult-funding education, including courses in English as a Second Language. Support, guidance and referrals for a host of services are available to anyone, however, regardless of residence location.

Instructors are all certified, Huntington said. For most, it's a second job.

The common theme is passion for making a difference, said South End Literacy Zone staffer Cody Netzband. He is a former collegiate cross country runner who got his start teaching in Baldwinsville.

He notes that different agencies help attract students to the Literacy Zone with email blasts. But the best advertising is word-of-mouth, he said. "If they're excited, they're going to show up - and they're also going to tell someone else about it," Netzband said.

A significant number of students here will eventually find jobs in the health-care industry - residential homes or hospitals. Hospitality and tourism jobs are also at the top of the list.

Netzband's goal is to make sure these future workers also understand their rights, which is why he has an upcoming workshop dedicated to occupancy safety and health.

"The education piece, while important, is only one piece of what we try to bring," Netzband said. "Think of it like a building with a foundation. And we also want to build it up, all the way around."

Lately, he's been thinking about how link the Literacy Zone to Parent University - a popular community collaborative to help parents understand their children's education. He wants to bring in experts to discuss topics such as financial issues, nutrition and transportation.

"There are still a lot of barriers we're trying to break down," Huntington said. "But you feel so excited for students when you see them succeed. That bond is incredibly strong."

For any prospective students, the typical first question is: "How long does it take?"

Huntington's response: "How much are you willing to put in? Because a lot can be accomplished here."

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