Through a variety of programs, Literacy Network engages the community to build skills and achieve life goals during National Literacy Month

September marks the start of another school year and the transition to another autumn season, but it is also an important month for English learners. September is also National Literacy Month, and Madison’s Literacy Network, led by Executive Director Jeff Burkhart, is leading the charge locally to help community members learn and master the English language.

“The Literacy Network has been around since 1974, and we’ve helped thousands of adults in our community realize their dreams through literacy,” Burkhart said. “We look at the individual goals of each of our students. Many of our students are learning English, so around 85% of our students are working on their English skills. We also have students working toward their GED or working on reading and writing skills who were born in the United States and speak English as their first language. Before the pandemic, we served approximately 1,000 people each year. During the pandemic, that number dropped to around 800. Now we are seeing a significant increase in the number of students contacting us.

In addition to the work that the Literacy Network does throughout the year, September marks a special time as the perhaps lesser-known issue of adult literacy comes to light. Literacy-related elements, such as work opportunities and navigating local environments, are brought to the fore as crucial aspects of what the Literacy Network has to offer.

“In terms of what this month means to us, I think it’s a good opportunity for us to highlight the impact of literacy on adult lives,” Burkhart said. “In addition to the work that we and many other literacy organizations, locally and across the country, are doing to help support families. Many of the people we serve have low incomes and are trying to increase their ability to earn more. We regularly see results, that once someone has achieved an education goal, they have also achieved their employment goals. They are then better able to support their families.

Earlier this year, Literacy Network learner Evelyn passed her citizenship test and took the Pledge of Allegiance to become a US citizen. Evelyn said her biggest challenge was learning to read and write in English to pass these parts of the citizenship interview, but she worked successfully in class and with a tutor to master them and achieve her goal of citizenship. (Photo: Literacy Network)

In addition to the potential progress to be made in the job market, Literacy Network students also simply benefit from the atmosphere of education and community. With a roster of great tutors and staff, the Literacy Network offers incentives to participate solely for personal experience and benefit.

“What we see very regularly are students with purpose and hope when they walk through the door,” Burkhart said. “It comes with a lot of increased confidence, and the kind of light that comes on is really tangible. We make our programs impactful, relevant and above all fun. There’s a lot of levity to the work we do.

“Our teachers are really great. They love teaching and they love connecting with their students, and they’re great cheerleaders,” Burkhart adds. “There’s a lot of really fun work going on. You can see it day in and day out in classrooms and in the smiles on people’s faces as they work together. It is a hopeful, friendly and engaging environment.

One aspect of learning that the Literacy Network emphasizes is setting achievable goals. In response, students have proven they know how valuable the opportunity with the Literacy Network is by extending the scope of their involvement into higher education, as many students seek a degree like initial goal, or in many cases after achieving their goal of completing high school.

“More than half of our students tell us they want to go to Madison College eventually and get a degree,” Burkhart said. “That’s why our connection to the college is so important. We have done a lot of work with the college, in the School of Academic Advancement in particular, to help students succeed in their Basic English or Adult Basic Education program to complete high school. The next step would be to enter a degree program. We have these very strong ties with people who we consider colleagues in college, and we have tutors in the classroom in college. We connect students who work with us to the college writing center and academic advisors. We use Madison College materials for much of what we do because we know that’s what our students want, they want to be able to succeed there.

The Literacy Network’s work alongside Madison College is just one piece of the outreach they do. Outreach work with the organization is also taking place in Dane County libraries and school districts. What such reach leads to is a constant ability to connect with prospective students, and Burkhart was sure of their effectiveness in doing so with increased community involvement. “In May, which is when our summer semester begins, we had about a 55% to 60% increase in the number of students contacting us in the previous semester,” he said. declared. “That meant that because we were still doing the registration virtually, we really had to get everyone together to go through the registration process. We just didn’t have enough staff, so we didn’t have enough staff to do it. In order to strengthen the staff, we tried to raise funds to hire more people to meet this need.

Staffing is the next hurdle the Literacy Network is looking to overcome, as the increased demand for services has created a related demand for those seeking to help. Nothing is perhaps as exemplary of the impact of the Literacy Network as its recent staffing of an alumnus, Hussein, who came as a refugee from Iraq and graduated with a high school students with the organization and is now working with them to provide the same opportunities for someone else as they work toward a degree at Madison College. Burkhart made it clear that staff like Hussein are more the rule than the exception, as all Literacy Network staff and tutors show passion in their work and always leave room for anyone who wishes to join them and lend a hand.

“Many of our tutors have been with us for several years,” Burkhart said. “They really see the impact and they love the work. The way the tutoring program is organized works very well for them. They don’t have to worry about planning a lesson. You don’t need to be an expert in education, you just need to be able to come and help someone through the lesson, and be patient and encouraging with them. We have wonderful tutors who do this work, so it’s a big part of the operation. We have both classroom stuff and tutoring, and then we set up all these different partnerships.

“In a typical semester, we probably have 15 outreach classes happening at various locations other than the Literacy Network,” Burkhart continues. “Workplaces, schools, libraries and all these different programs going on in various places. We are in South Madison, but we know the need is all over Dane County. This is our service area, so we try to do as many of these outreach programs as possible.

Jeff Burkhart Literacy Network Executive Director
(Photo by David Dahmer)

Although the Literacy Network has already provided opportunity and community for many people in Dane County, Burkhart was convinced that they are far from their peak and have much more potential as any volunteer work or donation can do the difference and help to further increase their effectiveness.

“We’re always looking for volunteers, and you can find out more on our webpage,” Burkhart said. “There’s a whole section on volunteering there. We are also hosting an in-person event this month to help celebrate Literacy Month, and this is meant as a fundraiser. It will be September 27 at the Sheraton. It’s a lunch, so it’s a free lunch, and we’ll have a great presentation featuring our students. Hope this inspires people to donate and support the work. There are a multitude of ways to get involved as volunteers, and not just as tutors. We are always looking for people interested in doing their own fundraising.

As with many acts of giving or helping, any amount can help ensure that the Literacy Network can continue to provide excellent service to its customers. With donors doing everything from a volleyball event with proceeds going to the Literacy Network, to an anonymous ten thousand dollar donation, there’s no creativity or generosity that goes unappreciated by the Literacy Network team. The future of the Literacy Network reflects this passion, as even in a time of transition when Burkhart steps down as CEO in December, the organization is focused on a smooth transition that will maintain the high quality of service it has been able to provide. so far.

“The transition is going well,” Burkhart said. “Our board and staff are engaged in the process as a search committee. I think we’re actually a little ahead of schedule, from what I explained when I announced to the board in early May. I’m thrilled to see that, and I knew we had the right team to do it. As far as the process is concerned, everything is going very well. My role has been to put together as comprehensive a manual as possible so that I can support the next generation of leaders.

If you are looking to get involved with the Literacy Network or want to follow its work and services, check out their website here.