Staying Afloat in New Orleans

With the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina behind us, most of the attention in New Orleans is still on physical and facility recovery efforts. But buried beneath the news accounts of a city trying to pull itself out of its debris are groups and organizations whose physical infrastructures may not have taken a direct hit from Katrina, but whose programs and services are struggling to stay afloat amidst reduced resources and a changing clientele.

These organizations include adult literacy programs, and behind them is a dedicated group of literacy leaders who are trying to keep the issue of adult literacy in the forefront of all the other issues vying for attention.

Before Katrina, 40 percent of adults in the New Orleans area were reading below the sixth-grade level and another 30 percent below the eighth-grade level. Less than 10 percent of those individuals were categorized as in need of literacy services and were actually enrolled in a literacy program.

The winds of Katrina scattered many adults who were enrolled in area literacy programs and blew in others with additional needs. This brought new challenges for literacy leaders, many of whom have been struggling with personal and professional issues of their own in the aftermath of the 2005 storm.

It’s About Hope

Dr. Petrice Sams-Abiodun, executive director of the Lindy Boggs Community Literacy W Center at Loyola University in New Orleans, says her home was flooded by six feet of water and made uninhabitable after the storm.

With her family currently living in the basement apartment of a relative, while dealing with contractors and city inspectors, Sams-Abiodun has managed to maintain a professional life.

She admits to being frustrated at times.

“As a native of New Orleans, I’m trying to rebuild my life personally and I’m very committed to the issue of literacy/adult education, which has also been devastated by Katrina.”

Noting that 70 percent of New Orleans adults read at or below the eighth-grade level before the storm, Sams-Abiodun points out that many residents couldn’t make their way through an extensive application process to receive assistance for rebuilding their lives after Katrina. “Literacy is so strongly linked to a lot of the poverty we’re seeing in the greater New Orleans area,” she says.

On the front lines of the literacy fight is the Lindy Boggs Center, which provides local literacy leaders with access to current information and training and pursues a collaborative, community-based research agenda.

Loyola University, located in the uptown area of New Orleans, suffered minimal damage from Katrina. However, many of the Lindy Boggs Center’s literacy providers were hit. “Many lost their centers, their computers, their instructional materials,” says Sams-Abiodun.

Before Katrina, the center’s adult education provider network had about 43 providers and programs. But now, only eight providers remain.

“So many people who were a part of the network left,” notes Sams-Abiodun. “So many instructors have not returned, or will not return. Like me, they are dealing with the professional and the personal. Many of our adult learners also are displaced.”

The providers who remained have had to seek unique partnerships to stay afloat. One provider, for example, has partnered with a library for space to continue operating.

Sams-Abiodun is encouraged by these collaborative efforts. “It’s not about literacy, it’s about hope,” she says, citing the center’s motto. “The people of the greater New Orleans area have hope that we can rebuild our community. This is also an opportunity to build the kind of adult education and literacy system we’ve always envisioned. We have the opportunity to impact literacy at a whole other level.”

Getting Creative

In contrast to the decline in adult learners in programs through the Lindy Boggs Center due to Katrina, the adult education and English as a Second Language programs offered through the Hispanic Apostolate Community Services have seen an explosion of participants post Katrina.

Prior to Katrina, 140 students participated in the Catholic Charities Archdiocese- run program at three small sites. In the past year, the participant level increased to about 600 people at six sites in three parishes, says Karla Sikaffy, who directs the program. Sikaffy says she anticipated the explosion.

Before the storm, she was working at Delgado Community College in New Orleans, in the areas of work force development and continuing education.

“I was one of the people who got left behind during the hurricane,” she recalls. “I eventually evacuated and came back and switched my focus to literacy and adult education, because I knew the influx of workers would be non-native speakers.”

Sikaffy was right. Most of the participants in the Catholic Charities program hail from places such as Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador and Honduras, she says.

Despite the increase in program participants, the funding has remained the same — a $20,000 Civics/English Language grant from the Louisiana Department of Education. “Funding is the biggest challenge,” says Sikaffy. “We don’t receive anything additional, other than what we go out and get through donations, grants, fund raising and volunteers. We’ve had to get creative to find means to sustain the program.” Like the Lindy Boggs Center, collaboration has become key for the program. Tulane University has provided about 50 students through its Center for Public Service to volunteer as tutors. The university also offers space for one of the six adult education/ESL programs. Partnerships with other schools, churches, community centers and nonprofits have meant free-ofcharge space and use of equipment for the five other programs. Sikaffy says her staff also has found themselves in the role of providing social support for students who are rebuilding their lives in a foreign land. Staff members are directing program participants to health care providers, job placement and legal services and trauma counseling centers. The group also coordinates some weekend activities among the six centers.

“Everyone right now is wearing so many hats and doing so many things,” says Sikaffy. “My job right now is to make sure we’re doing what we are supposed to do.”

Looking ahead, the group continues to make appeals to the state for more funding. “More funding would mean more sites,” says Sikaffy. “But when we inform them that our program has grown tremendously, they say their hands are tied. When literacy dollars are being distributed, I don’t think the changing demographics here in our city are being taken into account.”

An Awakening

Rachel B. Nicolosi, program director for the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, knows the “lack of funding” issue well.

“Funding has been impacted negatively as most private and government dollars are still going to crisis recovery issues,” she says. Echoing Sikaffy’s observations, she adds, “The numbers of new immigrants who are helping the rebuilding effort have increased, but there are no funds to meet the demand in English language services.”

The alliance works in partnership with the Lindy Boggs Center at Loyola and is a multi-stakeholder collaborative dedicated to increasing adult literacy through effective and innovative approaches and a committed community. Seven of nine staff members lost their homes. Nicolosi says she and her family had to evacuate for two months to her parents’ home in Baton Rouge.

She recalls, “Pre-hurricane, we worked with about 30 organizations — from statefunded school systems to small nonprofits and everything in between — that provided literacy, GED and ESL services.”

The Literacy Alliance currently has four staff members and shares three staffers from the Lindy Boggs Literacy Center. As for literacy programs, 13 are now operating. Nicolosi says a Literacy AmeriCorps grant has helped to place some teachers and tutors in literacy programs.

Nicolosi, like Abiodun and Sikaffy, says that the literacy issue shouldn’t be overlooked and, in fact, is a vital part of the New Orleans recovery effort.

“Many people in this community have had an awakening that they need to continue their education in order to survive away from home,” says Nicolosi. “Learning is not just for our children. It is lifelong and necessary for our personal and community recovery.”

Getting Involved

Dr. Sandra Baxter, director of the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), met with many of these literacy leaders during a visit to New Orleans to make a presentation about literacy at the EssenceMusic Festival.

“I was so deeply impressed with the people who have given up so much, but still went back and, without the resources they need, are committed to rebuilding the literacy infrastructure in New Orleans,” says Baxter. “I wanted to find out if there is more we can do to assist them.”

Since its creation in 1991, the NIFL’s mission has been to develop literacy as a national asset, using knowledge, research and practice, and working in collaboration with the U.S. Secretaries of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services (HHS), and with other partners.

The institute is also authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act to help children, youth and adults learn to read by supporting and disseminating evidencebased reading research. An advisory board appointed by the president guides the operations of the institute.

To help rebuild New Orleans’ literacy community, Baxter says NIFL will provide:

• Additional funding to a NIFL regional center in New Orleans to support rebuilding efforts

• Professional development training for tutors working with adult non-native English speakers

• Training for tutors working with adults with disabilities

• A large repository of literacy publications aimed at professional developers

• An assessment of the literacy situation in the New Orleans area

Baxter is also working to bring the New Orleans literacy community together to facilitate coordination of efforts and communications among the groups. On the federal level, she is coordinating an interagency meeting with officials at the U.S. Departments of Labor, HHS and Education to facilitate the sharing of information and coordination of their individual Katrina efforts.

Along with this outpouring of support, Baxter says people should get involved. “It’s not just a job for the government. We certainly will do our part, but for so much of what’s needed, there are people reaching out and helping.

–Dorothy Givens Terry

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