Nearly 5,000 Onondaga County residents each year participate in adult education, which includes English-as-second-language, high school equivalency and secondary school completion services. Yet this is only a small fraction of the population that needs help, according to Mark Cass, executive director of North Side Learning Center.
“These services are only reaching 15 percent of the adults in our community in need of stronger literacy skills,” said Cass.
Limited education holds people back from employment opportunities and achieving healthy incomes. Specifically, having limited proficiency in English can make tasks such as accessing healthcare, getting groceries and obtaining rewarding employment seem like unconquerable obstacles.
It is estimated that 60,000 adults in Onondaga County are in need of greater literacy skills. According to CNY Vitals, more than 17,000 people speak English less than very well and 3,500 county residents report never having completed any schooling while more than 5,000 report reaching the 12th grade but failing to receive a diploma.
In response to this community need, the Adult Education Roundtable (AER), a collaboration of local education institutions, has launched an awareness campaign to recruit students and volunteers.
“This campaign is not for the benefit of one program,” said Kelli Cooney, campaign manager. “It’s about exposing people to the many opportunities for learning that this community has to offer. We want people to find the program best suited for their needs.”
Potential students can call 1-800-READ or visit www.CNYLearns.org to have their needs assessed. Then, AER pairs them with the service best fit for their needs. English proficiency, personal goals and neighborhood of residence are all taken into consideration.
The campaign aims to show potential students that it’s possible to overcome the barriers that have long delayed their educational advancement.
“Sometimes, a person’s own life circumstances prove to be the biggest obstacle,” said Cooney. “Juggling concerns about work, children, transportation, housing and health is enough to make many adults move their own literacy needs to the bottom of their priority list.”
Recognizing this, AER organizations offer classes during daytime and nighttime hours; the classes are held in a variety of neighborhoods and spaces.
But at the crux of the campaign lies a challenge: How can information about literacy be distributed to a population that may be illiterate or has very limited literacy skills?
AER has risen to this challenge by filling its calendar with appearances at community events, stressing the importance of face-to-face engagement. It’s important to the AER that the campaign is present at events parents will already be attending with their children, such as Summer Learning Day at Destiny USA, the Near Westside Block Party and the Westcott Street Cultural Fair.
Additionally, city residents will soon see the campaign’s advertisements rounding their own neighborhood street corners; Centro busses will sport AER’s advertisements on their exteriors and interiors. The ever-changing routes will expose significantly more people to the campaign than AER could on its own. Going into the campaign, AER recognized that their students typically relied on the bus as a major means of reliable transportation.
“We knew having a presence on busses meant we could reach our target audience,” said Cooney. “But until this collaborative campaign, no individual AER organization could afford these ads.”
AER is an action team of the Literacy Coalition of Onondaga County that includes OCM-BOCES, Syracuse City School District Adult Education, SUNY Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center, Literacy CNY, North Side Learning Center, the adult literacy program of Onondaga County Public Library, Syracuse University’s University College, Onondaga Community College, and others. The organizations have been collaborating for the past several years but this marks their first collaborative public relations campaign. They hope to recruit 400 new adult students.
The CNY Community Foundation awarded AER a grant to support the awareness campaign, matching a contribution from the Syracuse Rotary Fund.
“Funding from the Community Foundation makes the bus advertisements possible and we are so excited about this exposure,” said Cooney.
From 2009 to 2015, the number of people living in poverty in Onondaga County increased by 19 percent. As poverty surges in Central New York, the hardships do not only exist on a personal level—the whole region suffers, so a commitment to adult literacy education is a commitment to the health of the entire Central New York community. Adult education services, such as those provided by AER, give people the skills needed to break free of poverty’s cycle.
When one individual becomes empowered through education, ripples of positive change can travel through the whole community. Through this awareness campaign, the Adult Education Roundtable hopes to turn these ripples into waves.