A mural made from books greets visitors in the lobby of the new offices of the Literacy Network off of Park Street.
Amalia Ponce moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 14 years old. Her mother raised her and her six siblings on her own. For Ponce, education wasn’t an option.
In 2001, she moved from Chicago to Madison. Eager to pass her U.S. citizenship test, she reached out to the Literacy Network of Dane County for help.
“I never went to school, not even elementary,” says Ponce, who is now 30. “Two years ago I took the citizenship test and I passed with a 100 percent. I never would have made it if they didn’t help me with it.”
Years later, Ponce is still studying with the Literacy Network.
“I’m taking classes for my future, to find a better job,” she says. “They’re helping me from scratch with spelling, writing and reading, and I hope that one day I can get the GED.”
Ponce says she is thankful that Madison has organizations to help people succeed. And there is definitely a need. According to Jeff Burkhart, executive director of the Literacy Network, one in seven adults in Dane County struggles with literacy.
“There are 55,000 people in Dane County with below basic literacy skills, and 60,000 people in Dane County who live below the poverty line,” Burkhart says. “I think there’s a pretty good correlation between those two numbers, and I’m almost certain that there are more.”
In hopes of reducing that number, the Literacy Network teaches reading, writing and speaking, as well as computer literacy to Dane County adults — completely free of charge.
Just last week it moved about a mile away to a new space on Madison’s south side that is three times the size of its old one.
Burkhart is looking forward to the possibilities the larger space will provide.
“We already have all of our classrooms filled for our evening programs in the new building,” says Burkhart. “Our hope is that we’ll be able to do a lot more. We’ve been a small organization for a long time, and it’s time for us to take this next step.”
The new location, 701 Dane St., is off of Park Street near the Boys & Girls Club, the Urban League of Greater Madison and the Goodman South Madison Library.
“There’s a lot of need in this area,” says Burkhart. “It’s got the highest level of poverty in Madison, so we’re certainly in the right area for what we do.”
While it’s only been a little over a week since the move, Literacy Network staff is already noticing a change.
“It’s a whole different presence in the community,” says Gregg Williard, ESL instructor and refugee services coordinator. “There are so many possibilities now with the way we can conduct classes, the scale of the classes, and the variety of the activities we can do. It’s so much more welcoming.”
Ezi Adesi, director of adult basic education, has met several neighbors, curious about the organization now in their community.
“Just in the first week, I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with several passersby from the neighborhood who are interested in programs or just want to know what we do,” he says. “To be on this end of Park Street, versus our old location, it’s two different worlds.”
Jennifer Peterson, senior director of tutoring, agrees.
“It’s striking because physical areas of Madison are pretty segregated. I was in graduate school at [UW-Madison] for five years, and I felt like I knew Madison, but when I started to do this work I discovered these whole other vibrant communities existed that had a very different experience,” Peterson says. “I definitely feel like we’re in the heart of it.”
The Literacy Network serves more than 1,000 adult learners each year. After it completes a $3 million fundraising campaign, the organization will be able to serve twice as many people in its new space.
It offers basic ESL (English as a second language) classes, and more focused classes like English for citizenship, English for health, workplace literacy and English for families. There are also classes specifically for refugees and one-on-one ESL tutoring.
The organization also works with many native English speakers, born and raised in the United States, who lack fundamental literacy skills. For them, it provides adult basic education tutoring programs, community literacy and the SCALE (Skills in Computers & Literacy for Employment) classes.
One place where the SCALE program is offered is the Oakhill Correctional Institute.
“It’s just to give the inmates very basic knowledge of the computer,” says Adesi, who runs the SCALE program. “You’re talking about guys who have never seen a computer and have no computer skills, but upon release will need it.”
One of Adesi’s favorite success stories is a student who took the SCALE program at Oakhill. He was released about a year after taking the class, applied for an apprenticeship at a construction company and eventually got a job.
“He stopped in my office about three months ago with his hard hat on and his boots — straight off of the construction site,” says Adesi. “Now he’s doing really, really well, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Each and every staff person has a plethora of stories of students who succeeded in getting their first job or first apartment, who got promoted or achieved things they didn’t think possible. While these individual triumphs are noteworthy, it doesn’t stop there, says Adesi.
“When it’s all said and done, the community benefits,” Adesi says. “It strengthens the community and makes it a safe place to live and a place where people are involved.”
And until people feel connected, says Peterson, Madison cannot be a successful community.
“There’s a lot of inequity between a certain class of Madison citizens who enjoy a really high quality of life and those who aren’t a member of that class,” says Peterson. “It’s really important that as we grow as a community, those of us who have had a lot of opportunities do everything we can to bring everyone along with us.”