New Americans in Anchorage want to learn English but literacy aid is drying up

October 14, 2009 

The gray-haired lady had always arrived on time for my class. Until one evening she was late. The 70-year-old explained in her best fractured English that she had fallen asleep after dinner.

With polite apologies she explained that because she worked from midnight until 8 a.m. stocking shelves at an Anchorage big-box store, and then had to fix breakfast for the grandchildren, whom she watched all day in addition to cooking and cleaning for her family, that she was a bit tired.

In another class, I once assigned a discussion topic: What would you do if you had all the money in the world?

When the students began answering - in their steadily improving English - I teared up. A shy Hmong woman who rarely spoke in class had a simple answer: "I would buy a country for my people," she said softly.

She wouldn't buy a flat-screen TV, a fancy car, or even a house. She would buy a country for all the Hmong people in the world who have no country of their own, no passports, no national identity.

These women's stories are typical of the students I have had the privilege of knowing as a volunteer English instructor at the Alaska Literacy Program over the last several years.

However, I fear for these new Americans who are making Anchorage their home. They often come from lifetimes spent in refugee camps, or are seeking refugee status because of domestic violence or political persecution. They just want a small slice of the American dream: honest work, shelter, adequate food - and hope.

The reason I fear is simple: The 35-year-old Alaska Literacy Program (formerly named the Anchorage Literacy Project) is steadily losing funds when the need is increasing. ALP's budget in 2006 was $687,500. The projected budget for 2010 is $469,000.

The reasons for the budget decline are familiar: fewer donations and fewer public and private grants, reflections of the national and state economies.

Two years ago, ALP had 17 people on its payroll -low-paid but dedicated teachers and staff who taught during the day and some evening classes. This year ALP has eight paid staff, most working 32 hours or less per week, and 99 volunteer teachers to fill in the holes day and night.

For the last two quarters, ALP has had to turn away students because classrooms were full and demand exceeded resources.

Of the 45 different classes - day and evening - taught last quarter, 60 percent were taught by volunteers. In the old days, the literacy project had many one-on-one tutors. But now, because of the high volume of students, almost all teaching is in a classroom setting. I have had as many as 16 students in an evening class.

Demographics are changing too. Back in 1985, when I first trained, we had many refugees from Vietnam. Nowadays, there are many more students from parts of the world ALP has never had students from before, such as Bhutan and Togo and Congo.

In addition to daytime and evening classes in its east Anchorage building, ALP partners with the Anchorage School District to provide family literacy services to adults at McKinnell House. ALP also partners with Catholic Social Services' Refugee and Immigration Services (RAIS) and will provide a teacher for a new classroom at the RAIS Welcome Center. ALP also helps serve the beginning and low-level learner by partnering with the multi-agency Nine Star Regional Adult Education program.

What does ALP need to continue these invaluable services to the community?

Of course a bigger budget (What would you do if you had all the money in the world?) - but right now more volunteer teachers, especially for day classes. ALP provides the training. All it needs are men and women with a few extra hours a week to help their new neighbors meet their dreams of security, safety and self-sufficiency.

Catherine Stadem is an Anchorage-based writer. To contact the Alaska Literacy Program, call 337-1981 or e-mail Executive Director Polly Smith at alp.psmith@alaska.com.

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