Applying the Helping Students Stay Course in the Classroom

Even though my schedule was pretty much maxed out, I decided to make time for the Helping Students Stay course. Our program had a number of students, more than we were comfortable with, who didn’t make it past the twelve hour mark. What was going on? What I found out when I took the course is that what our program was experiencing was by no means an anomaly. It was happening all over, especially in rural areas similar to mine, where transportation is a big issue. However, what I also learned as the course progressed is that many programs have implemented strategies to curb this trend. Some of those programs had really impressive turnarounds so if they could do it, why can’t we?

I started in my own classroom by trying to figure out how I could do a better job of building a sense of community and belonging, one of the drivers of persistence identified in the course. I had noticed that the ESL classes in my program seemed to have that going and I wondered why. True, they have the commonality of coming to a new country and needing to adjust to a different culture and learn a new language. But it was more than that. For example, they always had coffee brewing and frequently brought in goodies to share with each other.

Coffee, I decided, is something I can do. So, I commandeered a coffee pot and brought in the fixings for the coffee. I also went out to the dollar store and bought a bunch of white mugs and some paint markers. I gave the students a mug to decorate and call their own, as you can see pictured above. My class is open enrollment, so every new student gets one as well, and I really enjoy watching their reaction when I hand them the mug and the markers. To be sure, I can see by the looks on their faces that it wasn’t something they were expecting, but rather, a pleasant surprise.

Did this make a difference? I think it’s too soon to tell; although, I did have a student say to me today, “I don’t know what it is, but when I come in here I just want to take off my shoes. It feels like home.” I’ve also had the number of students who attend class more than once a week double over the last two months (my class is scheduled four mornings per week).

In the meantime, I created a student survey that all students in our program are filling out. We plan, as a program, to carefully examine these surveys, along with the persistence strategies I learned about in the Helping Students Stay course, so that we can make some decisions about what we might change in order to boost our classroom attendance program-wide. Our goal is to implement some of these changes by the start of the 2016-2017 school year. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be reading about our program’s success story this same time next year!

bio pic Patricia Helmuth2

Patricia Helmuth is an Adult Numeracy Consultant and Educator, who teaches for the Adult Program and SC BOCES in New York. She also works with the Hudson Valley RAEN Regional Staff Developers Network, as a Teacher Leader-Trainer, to provide support for Adult Education Instructors in CCSS mathematics instructional strategies. She recently became Co-Editor of the Math Practitioner, a newsletter published by ANN, The Adult Numeracy Network. Patricia is a contributor to World Education’s Tech Tips for Teachers blog.
Student persistence is a critical first step to enable student success. Helping Students Stay: Exploring Program and Classroom Persistence Strategies is a six-week online course for adult education professionals that explores the six core drivers of persistence, identified in the New England Learner Persistence Project. Participants use this information to create a persistence plan relevant to their own situation. The next session will be starting on March 23. You can read more about the course and register on our website. 

Making Skills Everyone’s Business through Ideation and Innovation

By Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, Team Leader at the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education

“How might we solve…?” Is the question that sparked nearly 100 educators in an early morning design session on the final day of the National College Transition Network’s annual conference.

“How might we…?” questions for participants in the Design Workshop at the NCTN 2015 Conference.

Attendees brainstormed solutions to challenges faced by adult learners connected to the strategies embedded in the report, Making Skills Everyone’s Business (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE), 2015).

Heidi Silver-Pacuilla, Team Leader, and Lul Tesfai, Senior Policy Advisor, from OCTAE, led the group through the 90-minute sprint. The session used the Stanford Design School‘s freely available toolkit which organizes the process around five stages:

  • Empathy
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test



Video stories of adult learners, drawn from the KET series, Dropping Back In, grounded the effort in human-centered design thinking. Real stories from students they know spurred attendees to think outside the box to likely and unlikely partners who have assets to leverage.

By the end of the session, groups had articulated and prototyped new solutions to existing challenges. And they had experienced the power of design thinking to shake up old assumptions and move beyond “we can’t because…” to “how might we…?”

Adult Basic Skills Programs: A Crucial Tool in Fighting Poverty

Steve Reder, Portland State University
By Stephen Reder, Portland State University

Literacy has long been a connector that helps hold us together as a society. General health and key markers of social cohesion such as trust in others, feelings of political empowerment, and willingness to volunteer are closely tied to adult literacy, as are more direct economic indicators such as employment and earnings.

Unfortunately, the United States has lower levels of adult literacy than most advanced countries, and we continue to slip further behind. Our society’s growing income inequality is closely linked with our inequality of adult literacy. At every level of education, the less literate an American adult is, the greater the chances that he or she lives in poverty. If we are serious about improving economic well-being and addressing the gaping disparities our country faces, we need to develop and support adult educational programs that increase literacy and other basic skills

An obvious response to these challenges would be focus on improving our K-12 schools and early childhood education programs. Although such reforms may eventually improve adult basic skills, they can’t have much impact in the short run, since most adults with weak basic skills – and most adults living in poverty – have already aged out of the K-12 school system. They need better basic skills and higher incomes now. In addition, increasing parental literacy skills and incomes will improve their children’s future educational outcomes.

Adult basic education programs can have a quicker impact. The recently enacted Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) includes support for adult basic skills programs as part of workforce development. Although basic skills programs can certainly help, unfortunately they are not adequately funded (for example, the basic skills grants to states in 2015 were 18 percent lower than in 2005 after adjusting for inflation).

Expanding funding for these programs will likely be quite cost effective. A recent study estimated that adults who went through these programs earned an average of about $10,000 more per year than they would have earned had they not gone through the programs.

A limitation of WIOA-funded basic skills programs, however, is their required connection to the workforce development system. Many of the 24 million unemployed or underemployed adults in poverty – and the 6 million full-time “working poor” – are not in a position to benefit from these programs. Some do not have the education or the minimal literacy skills required for entry into local career pathway programs. Others live in family or housing situations that must be stabilized before they can realistically participate in training or work. An additional 8 million adults who have serious disabilities or are retired seniors live in poverty but cannot access these programs because they are out of the workforce.

Innovative programs in both the public and nonprofit private sectors are exploring new ways to help adults, families, and communities move out of poverty. These include training and support for goal-setting, financial planning, “assertive engagement” in family stabilization, building “executive function” skills, family independence in economic development, and other innovations in life management. Improved basic skills will facilitate these important life management tasks that are so often needed to escape poverty and attain economic stability.

Basic skills instruction can be contextualized in these programs to help adults, including young adults who are not in school, address meaningful goals they set for themselves—whether those involve financial planning, personal and family health, care of elderly parents, or involvement in children’s education. Investments in basic skills programs will not only reduce poverty, they will return additional economic benefits including decreased health care costs and lower costs associated with crime and incarceration.

We must measure basic skills with more than just standardized test scores: we want to measure people’s use of text, numbers and diagrams – in printed and digital form – to gather, process, and communicate information in their important everyday activities. Basic skills development must be presented and delivered in a culturally responsive way that enhances individuals’ dignity and potential and builds on their strengths rather than labeling them as “basic skills deficient” (the unfortunate terminology still found in WIOA).

We need policies and programs that support lifelong and life-wide adult literacy in both workforce development and other important life contexts to build a more equitable society. To achieve this vital goal, federal, state, and local policymakers and advocates must pay systematic attention to broad-based needs for adult basic skills as they set funding priorities and develop initiatives to reduce poverty and increase economic opportunity.

This article was originally published in Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.

Federal Initiative Highlights Role of Libraries in Immigrant Skill-Building

By Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, National Skills Coalition

Participants in the federal Networks for Integrating New Americans technical assistance initiative gathered in Washington DC recently for a two-day convening. Joining the convening for its second day were members of the initiative’s Technical Work Group, a group of advisors that includes National Skills Coalition Senior Policy Analyst Amanda Bergson-Shilcock.

The initiative is funded by the US Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. It is led by World Education, Inc. and supported by partner organizations Community Science, IMPRINT, National Partnership for New Americans, Network Impact Inc., and Welcoming America. (Learn more about the initiative, and read the detailed Theoretical Framework (pdf) on immigrant integration that guides its work.)

The recent event highlighted the diverse approaches taken by the five local networks supported by the initiative. Each network is comprised of stakeholders in adult education, workforce development, and other fields who work to facilitate immigrants’ linguistic, economic, and civic integration.

The five networks are:

  • We Rhode Island Network  (WeRIN) (Providence, RI)
  • Neighbors United Network (Boise, ID)
  • White Center Promise Network (White Center, WA)
  • Lancaster County Refugee Network (Lancaster, PA)
  • Networks for Integrating New Americans of the Central Valley (Fresno, CA)

Libraries as Sites of Integration: Two Examples

Several of the networks’ presentations at the recent convening shed light on how libraries can facilitate immigrant integration and skill-building. For example, WeRIN members are participating in the Adult Lifelong Learning (ALL) Access project, spearheaded by Rhode Island libraries and funded by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.

As part of ALL Access, local libraries now offer a “Learning Lounge” that allows adult learners to drop in (thus creating an on-ramp for participation even while prospective learners are on a waiting list for an adult education class). ALL Access also provides learners with one-on-one technology appointments with librarians, and offers computer skills certifications through library classes.

On the other side of the country, members of the White Center Promise Network are participating in The Big Read, a storytelling and civic engagement project coordinated by a host of partners including the King County (WA) Library System. Focusing on Ethiopian-American author Dinaw Mengestu’s book The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears, the project is offering dozens of activities for immigrant and US-born community members over a months-long period beginning in September 2015.

Perhaps the most notable: Teenage and adult immigrants have been trained as facilitators for community discussion groups.  Armed with translated excerpts of Mengestu’s book, newcomers are now fostering their fellow immigrants’ civic engagement and literacy skills while improving their own public-speaking abilities.

A National Push

Looking beyond the local examples of WeRIN and White Center Promise Network, libraries’ role in supporting access to skill-building and economic opportunity is receiving increasing attention at the federal level.

In 2013, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and US Citizenship and Immigrations Services signed a Memorandum of Understanding. The USCIS website now hosts a resource section specifically for libraries on citizenship.

Similarly, in 2014, the US Departments of Labor and Education collaborated with the IMLS on an article emphasizing opportunities for libraries in implementing the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. Soon after, the American Library Association hosted a webinar: $2.2 Billion Reasons Libraries Should Care about WIOA.

National Skills Coalition will continue to highlight emerging developments in this important arena.