Sometimes, it’s just a simple, but deep, desire.
Many adults who participate in Seeds of Literacy hope to earn a GED high school equivalency certificate. Others want to improve their reading skills to obtain a job or better position.
“But we have students who just want to learn how to read. We have a gentleman who came to us last year who had an extremely low reading ability. He just wanted to read his Bible,” says Bonnie Entler, president and CEO of Seeds of Literacy, a nonprofit that provides test preparation and basic education for adults free of charge.
The need for literacy education in Greater Cleveland is startling. Citing statistics from the Center for Urban Poverty and Social Change, Case Western Reserve University, Entler says 66 percent of Cleveland adults are functionally illiterate.
In some neighborhoods, that percentage rises into the 90s. Functional illiteracy is defined as having math, reading or language skills below a fourth-grade level.
“That doesn’t mean that someone doesn’t have any ability to read. But they have a hard time comprehending information,” says Entler, who recently received the award for Local Excellence in Advocacy for the 2020 Coalition on Adult Basic Education National Awards. “That may mean understanding a bus schedule, instructions on a medicine bottle, job applications or helping a child with homework. These are things we take for granted.”
In addition, 23 percent of Cleveland adults 25 years and older do not have a high school diploma or GED certificate. An adult without a high school diploma earns about 42 percent less than an adult with a diploma, according to Seeds of Literacy information, citing sources that include the U.S. Census Bureau, Ohio
Literacy Resource Center and Bureau of Labor Statistics. Though, those facts can be changed, says Entler, “if we gather our resources and make our community strong.” Seeds of Literacy has a 75 percent GED test section pass rate for students.
The Congregation of St. Joseph and the Sisters of St. Joseph (many of whom were educators) founded Seeds of Literacy in 1997 in honor of 125 years of service to the Diocese of Cleveland. In 2005, it became a nonprofit organization. Seeds of Literacy is the only adult literacy program in Ohio that is nationally accredited by ProLiteracy, which requires standards to be renewed every five years. The accreditation is similar to requirements set for primary and secondary schools, according to Entler, who has been with Seeds of Literacy since 2003.
Today, there are two literacy centers that are open 12 hours a day, Monday through Thursday: Seeds West, 3104 W. 25th St.; and Seeds East, 13815 Kinsman Road. Tutoring is available in mornings, afternoons and evenings. All instruction is individualized, one-on-one, and no student has regularly scheduled instruction. Entler says other literacy programs in the region are classroom-based. Enrollment, which is open year-round, is about 60 percent female and 40 percent male.
“Someone may come in Monday morning and maybe Wednesday afternoon. Our doors are always open,” says Entler, adding that she understands the challenges students face, including poverty, childcare, job commitments and transportation. “Some may finish in a few months; others take 10 years. Some alumni come back because they feel they are not getting the help they need at a secondary level. We also tutor in science and social studies.”
The 280 tutors receive about six hours of training and are matched to more than 1,000 students who are helped each year. Student orientation happens every week. Seeds of Literacy serves about 300 to 400 students a month.
Entler’s educational coordinators noticed that some students who came to Seeds of Literacy had been rejected from other programs in the area. These students were not specifically looking to obtain a GED or were considered to have too low of a reading level.
“We couldn’t turn them away. They had the courage to come here, and no one was really serving them,” says Entler. “Now, we have about 50 tutors to help with the basic things, such as letter recognition and skills for people who are reading at less than a third-grade level. About 330 people would have been turned away from other programs.”
Seeds of Literacy also received “a challenge” from United Way, according to Entler, to help more individuals improve their literacy skills. Bilingual tutors now help students learn to read and prepare for the GED that can be taken in Spanish.
“Right now, it’s a small program at our West Side location, which we created with one of our partners, Esperanza. We had to create a curriculum from scratch,” says Entler, whose literacy principal staff also includes Carmine Stewart, vice president of programming.
Seeds of Literacy receives about 12 percent of its funding from state and local grants, with the rest coming from foundations, corporations, individuals and special events.
“I am very proud of all the students,” Entler says. “They inspire me.”