The Overlook with Matt Peiken

Reading the Room | Literacy Together

May 27, 2024 Matt Peiken Episode 162
Reading the Room | Literacy Together
The Overlook with Matt Peiken
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The Overlook with Matt Peiken
Reading the Room | Literacy Together
May 27, 2024 Episode 162
Matt Peiken

Most people reading or listening to this likely take their literacy for granted. But for thousands of youth and adults throughout Buncombe County, literacy is a hurdle impacting nearly every element of life.

My guests are executive director Amanda Wrubleski and program directors Rebecca Massey and Erin Sebelius with Literacy Together. It’s an Asheville nonprofit training and teaming reading tutors with struggling youth, immigrants, people emerging from prison and many others.

Literacy Together isn’t the only local nonprofit focusing on literacy in Asheville and Buncombe County. Last October, I featured the leaders of Read 2 Succeed. Today, we talk about how literacy is often an issue of equity, how myriad life challenges can hold people back from literacy, how someone can graduate high school and still not be able to read well and how tutoring is really only half the work of Literacy Together’s directors.

SPONSOR: Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance returns for one weekend only with the premiere of "Before the Scream." Performances are July 25-27 at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.

Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

Support the Show.

Support The Overlook by joining our Patreon campaign!

Advertise your event on The Overlook.

Instagram: AVLoverlook | Facebook: AVLoverlook | Twitter: AVLoverlook

Listen and Subscribe: All episodes of The Overlook

The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Show Notes Transcript

Most people reading or listening to this likely take their literacy for granted. But for thousands of youth and adults throughout Buncombe County, literacy is a hurdle impacting nearly every element of life.

My guests are executive director Amanda Wrubleski and program directors Rebecca Massey and Erin Sebelius with Literacy Together. It’s an Asheville nonprofit training and teaming reading tutors with struggling youth, immigrants, people emerging from prison and many others.

Literacy Together isn’t the only local nonprofit focusing on literacy in Asheville and Buncombe County. Last October, I featured the leaders of Read 2 Succeed. Today, we talk about how literacy is often an issue of equity, how myriad life challenges can hold people back from literacy, how someone can graduate high school and still not be able to read well and how tutoring is really only half the work of Literacy Together’s directors.

SPONSOR: Terpsicorps Theatre of Dance returns for one weekend only with the premiere of "Before the Scream." Performances are July 25-27 at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts.

Wake Up, Asheville! and ¡Despierta Asheville!  (in Spanish) are new morning newscast podcasts that give you all the local news you need to know in under five minutes. Both are free to subscribe/follow wherever you get your podcasts!

Support the Show.

Support The Overlook by joining our Patreon campaign!

Advertise your event on The Overlook.

Instagram: AVLoverlook | Facebook: AVLoverlook | Twitter: AVLoverlook

Listen and Subscribe: All episodes of The Overlook

The Overlook theme song, "Maker's Song," comes courtesy of the Asheville band The Resonant Rogues.

Podcast Asheville © 2023

Matt Peiken: You're not the only organization in this town dealing with literacy.

There are a number of, or at least a few here that deal with that. That points to me that there's an acute need in this And Amanda, can you talk a little bit? As where Literacy Together fits into this puzzle, what you do, describe the work you do and how, what unique niche you hold in the landscape of digital literacy, boosting literacy in this region. 

Amanda Wrubleski: Our mission is to transform lives and communities through the power of literacy. And we believe in a just and equitable community where literacy can be achieved and accessed by everyone. And we do that by finding volunteer tutors who can work with students to help them meet their literacy goals.

And you're right, the need in Buncombe County is huge. About 15 percent of the Buncombe County population is classified as low literate, which means that they have a difficult time understanding complex words and vocabulary. And so our work in partnering with other organizations, partnering with our community college system, is to really give that extra boost and that extra attention to help our students achieve their goals.

Matt Peiken: You said a couple things that just point to something stark here. So 15%, can you give us some context? Is there a norm? What is the general range of percentage for literacy or lack thereof in a community? Here it's 15%. Is that high compared to other areas our size or larger?

Amanda Wrubleski: I'm less familiar with the national statistics. We're doing better in Buncombe County than we are throughout the state. So that's actually a more positive number than the state of North Carolina. But it's pretty similar to the national average. 

Matt Peiken: What contributes, what are some of the factors that lead people well into adulthood having struggles with literacy?

Amanda Wrubleski: People fall between the cracks. People have all kinds of different needs, different learning styles, and it can be challenging for people to get that kind of extra support and attention that they need. And literacy really impacts every area of our lives. If a mother is not able to read, that means she's not able to read to her child.

And so we see that cycle continuing through generations and It's a cycle that we're trying to break And that we work with other organizations to try to do that. 

Matt Peiken: What are some of the root causes? Is it ranging everything from some disabilities to equity issues, poverty, All of the above? What contributes to somebody who you know, you would think they're they've gone through school. Some people and correct me if i'm wrong in this, there are people who get high school diplomas who Struggle with literacy, which to me Speaks to an issue there that how are people graduating if they're not really able to read. Run down some of the causes of this and, from there, Is it just simply a matter of tutoring? 

Amanda Wrubleski: There's a student in one of our programs, adult literacy, who actually graduated from one of our local schools many years ago with us now because he struggles with literacy. 

Rebecca Massey: More than one. 

Matt Peiken: Can you speak to that a little bit rebecca? Give us an example, you know without naming names of the adults who come into your program and What challenges they've had and how your program intercepts those challenges.

Rebecca Massey: It's a really big picture, a really big problem. But I would say with the broadest strokes, There are two major factors. Everything goes back to equity. But the country is not set up to take care of the needs of poor people. Most of the people in our program, probably all of them, live below the poverty level, and most of them are the working poor.

That's one thing. And then, all of our major institutions, health care, justice system, education, finances, housing are affected by white supremacy culture. And our black students in particular are also disadvantaged because of those systems. Both of those forces together have led people in our program to not get the resources that they need. And then each individual story is different from There, but those are the two biggest fights that we have, I would say. 

Matt Peiken: Can we drill into this a little more in terms of the racial inequity that happens?

How does that play out in real time? Because you have black students, white students in the same school, ostensibly going through the same Educational programs, having the same teachers. How does the racial inequity play out when on the surface of things, they're in the same school? What happens? 

Rebecca Massey: A lot of times they're not in the same school.

Schools get to be pretty segregated, but I will say just based on the stories of the students that I've talked to, A lot of black students, and particularly black males, will have gone through school without the resources that they need, and then if they are frustrated, their frustration at not getting the help that they need is perceived as aggression.

And so with that starts these disciplinary actions and resentments and things like that. And so a lot of the students that we have that can't read that are black males were subject to discipline or just got frustrated and left. 

Matt Peiken: Does it also come down to That the resources that you mentioned, they're not always at the same school. Some schools are very under resourced. 

Rebecca Massey: Yes. 

Matt Peiken: Compared to others. Yeah. Does that play out? Some might have very well stocked libraries in their school. 

Rebecca Massey: Oh, yeah. Yeah, definitely the funding for schools is inequitable. We'll do the racial part first and then the financial part in a minute but going back to the race issue, the stories of the white students who came To learn how to read or to build up their literacy who did graduate high school, where they had Maybe a different temperament or they are perceived differently.

So they have the same issues that our black students had, but when they got frustrated, they weren't misperceived as being aggressive and their teachers perceived them differently. So they got pushed on and pushed on, which of course is no favor to them if they graduate high school and can't read.

But a lot of times those are the students that are able to get a high school diploma, the white students, and then come back for help because they actually didn't get the services they needed. So they're really different trajectories depending on race. So that's where race comes into it. But the fact that a large Portion of school funding has to do with the, local taxes and things like that.

Of course, if you live in a rich neighborhood and you live in a poor neighborhood, your schools are going to be funded differently. And so that always is going to lead to a disparity.

Matt Peiken: It's interesting what you're talking about when it comes to discipline in school and the spider trails of impact that has. Is it also that it impacts their very attachment to education and the systemic education, like being part of being schooled in the system? Is there a mistrust that gets built up there? 

Rebecca Massey: Yeah, I'd say for a lot of the students and that's across the board, especially if they grew up without resources, they grew up poor, it's we're not a family that goes to college.

That's for other people. We're a family that works or we're a family that has other values and so the value of education a lot of times is It's not the same like for the family that I grew up in and the family that our students grew up in and so there are other priorities in people's lives other than education and a lot of times Yeah, a distrust of the system that's failed them.

Matt Peiken: I want to get into the ESOL program in a moment but coming back to you Amanda, so when you're dealing with a clientele, people that you're serving who Are at least in some cases mistrustful of a traditional education You know hasn't served them as well. How are the people you serve coming to you and how do your tutors circumvent that mistrust that has been built up? 

Amanda Wrubleski: I think that a lot of our students describe their experience being extremely unique and getting the kind of support that they've never experienced. Our program directors train the volunteers to know all of the technical skills they need in order to be a tutor.

And there's so much support that they receive throughout their time as a tutor as well. I was talking to one student last week, and she made the point that as a child, we need people to hold our hands and walk us through the challenges of life. And as an immigrant to our community, she said that even as an adult, she needs someone to hold her hand.

And that's what her tutor does for her. She helps her navigate some of the challenges that she faces out in the world and our community. And she has that person that's really a mentor and believes in her. 

Matt Peiken: You came from Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and we were talking about this before we started rolling tape.

Do you think there's a commonality there in terms of just mentorship, and that a real relationship is built, whereas maybe in school, traditional schools, as kids were coming up, they didn't feel that those relationships were built for them. Is that a component of this? 

Amanda Wrubleski: Absolutely. I think that all of our tutors, Serve in the role as a mentor as well.

And it's such a beautiful opportunity to exchange ideas and cultures and learn more about other countries and other communities. 

Matt Peiken: Erin, you lead the English as a second language program. You've been with Literacy Together for 19 years. First of all, give us a sense of the larger umbrella of those 19 years.

Is the wisdom of that goes into tutoring and some of the best practices have those evolved a lot in the nearly two decades you've been with this organization. 

Erin Sebelius: Wow, that's a good question. I want to say we've always tried to stay on the cutting edge of best practices in language instruction.

Even two decades ago, we were doing really well with very interactive lessons, focusing on listening, speaking, reading, and writing, teaching the English that you need to get through your daily life. I think that we've improved tutor training over the years and equipped the volunteers to better use those materials and pull in other things as well as necessary and really personalize the class to be able to meet the students needs.

Matt Peiken: So be a little more specific though, what are you doing now, you and your tutors doing now or paying attention to now that maybe 10, 15 years ago, weren't as top of mind. 

Erin Sebelius: I would say technology would be the biggest answer to that question. Computer literacy wasn't a large part of the program 20 years ago, but of course we've seen it's more necessary now so the need for those skills have grown.

So more and more tutors are incorporating computer literacy. And or teaching the classes online so the students are learning to use their computers better and use technology better just by virtue of the way they're taking their class. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah, now looking at the Literacy Together website, it seems like that the ESOL program serves more people than any of your other programs.

I saw in there about 250 people per year. How are people coming into the ESOL? Are they referred by other support agencies that are helping them get acclimated? 

Erin Sebelius: Sometimes. Most of it is word of mouth through family or friends that have received our services. People come and find out about us.

But services like some people go to Pisgah Legal Services or Catholic Charities to get help with their citizenship applications maybe. And so they refer people to us. So there's some referral, but most of it is just word of mouth in the community. We don't do any recruiting whatsoever for students in this program because we have a long waiting list and we always have.

Matt Peiken: And I imagine some of the challenges are not what Rebecca and Amanda were talking about when she was talking about some of the inequities. Or are there? Talk about where there's overlap or where some of the distinct challenges are with this base of people you serve. 

Erin Sebelius: We serve people with all levels of literacy in their native language.

So I have folks with PhDs who are learning English for the first time. I have folks that have never been to school. So we have some students who have not had a lifetime of book learning and school learning and that kind of formal education. Some have studied other languages before and others have never studied another language.

So all those things play into how easy it is to learn a new language.

Matt Peiken: How long do your students stay in your programs? Is there a time limit for all programs or no? 

Erin Sebelius: In ESOL, we ask tutors and students to commit to stay together for a minimum of one year.

And that has to do with our federal funding and reporting so we can pre test and post test and show progress within the year because that's required for that federal funding and really any funders want to see, measures of student progress. So in ESOL, we ask for that one year commitment many tutors and students stay for much longer than a year.

Certainly it takes longer than a year to become fluent and many Tutors and students just really enjoy it and find it so rewarding that they stick together for a very long time. Other times the student has to quit, but the volunteer wants to stay with us. So they'll get a new student and they'll have a series of students over many years.

Matt Peiken: Some of it is one on one tutoring. Some of it is group tutoring, correct? 

Erin Sebelius: We do some group tutoring in ESOL, but the vast majority is one on one. 

Matt Peiken: One program area we aren't talking about right now because the director isn't here is the youth element Amanda, maybe you can speak to that a little bit.

What is unique about your youth program? I would think, again, on the surface, students are in school. We've talked a little bit about the inequities that happen from school to school, maybe even from classroom to classroom, but what do your tutors do that isn't necessarily happening in the schools? When you have a fifth grader, fourth grader who's learning to read, supposedly, Do you have to coordinate with the schools so that you're teaching methods align, that they're reading the same material, talk about that a little bit.

Amanda Wrubleski: We use the Orton Gillingham model for our youth literacy program. And we focus our efforts at a few different after school sites. We partner with Youth Transform for Life, YTL, the Avery Center, and also West Buncombe Elementary. So we really center in the after school programs that serve primarily youth of color.

And it's the same type of model with the one on one tutoring support that the students receive in that program. Traditionally we've served K through five, But we've actually moved into the middle school programming as well, along with serving high school youth who are homeless. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah. I just was going to ask you about that.

I saw that it's a relatively new program, right? That you're working with high school age homeless kids. Talk about how that need developed and how you're working with kids who are homeless. Are they in school or who are these kids who are in that particular part of the program?

Rebecca Massey: So it's just getting started. I've just started working with a really great organization called HARK, which stands for helping at risk kids. I won't go into all the logistics of it, but basically there's a federal program called McKinney Vento that makes sure that there's funding for students that are experiencing homelessness.

And through a bunch of different organizations came together, Literacy Together to do the education, Homeward Bound to help with housing. On track to help with financial stuff, working wheels to provide transportation or repairs. And I might be forgetting somebody, but a whole bunch of different wraparound support services for the students and their families if they have one with them.

Matt Peiken: That seems to be almost an ideal of how the model should work, right? 

Rebecca Massey: Yes, that's exactly right. That's how everything should work. 

Matt Peiken: You alluded to a little bit ago, Erin, about how the federal funding for ESOL. Where is the funding for all your programs coming from?

Because I assume the people you serve are not paying out of pocket for these, right? It's free. So talk about from the various programs how you're stitching together funding. 

Amanda Wrubleski: Yeah, our tutoring services are completely free for everyone who receives them and to do that we receive some amount of federal funding, we apply for foundations and grants.

We have a very generous donor base as well that fuels our mission of providing these services. And then we have our annual Authors for Literacy event as well. 

Matt Peiken: So I noticed again on the website, it was 250 students in your ESOL program, about 50 students a year served in the adult program. Erin, you said there's a long waiting list for ESOL. Is there a long waiting list in all your programs? You're shaking your head no, Rebecca. 

Rebecca Massey: Whenever it comes to my program, the answer is, it's complicated. 

Matt Peiken: Please, unravel that complication for me. 

Rebecca Massey: The turnover rate in adult education programs across the country is traditionally pretty high.

It's also very high in ours because so many of our students come in survival mode. Like in the past 24 hours, there are two students I have that are homeless. And trying to figure that out right now. When they're dealing with that and they're dealing with losing, somebody else's out last week cause she didn't have childcare anymore, lack of transportation.

So there's so many issues, not even to mention the people that come that just got out of prison within the past year or so that have been addicts and A lot of our students have, suffer from some sort of anxiety or bipolar or whatever, they just Tell me these things when I meet them.

And so because of all those issues together, and it's unending the turnover rate is very high. So that means related to the tutor student ratio, a lot of times, we'll put together pairs of a tutor and a student, the student leaves, and then the tutor has to get another student. They might have to wait for one.

And so that's this constant juggling. 

Matt Peiken: What's really Surprising to me about this, maybe not surprising because I know about all those factors go into it, but your tutors and you yourself, the program directors have to juggle so much more than actually just teaching somebody to read. 

Rebecca Massey: It's great when we can just talk about that, but half the job or more than half the job is other stuff.

Matt Peiken: So how do you do that work? Your tutors are trained to teach people to read. So talk about those elements of the work that you do. With these clients in particular, are these wraparound services continually at play here? They're not. 

Rebecca Massey: We have to get them to them. Some people come with case workers, case managers, or whatever, that are helping them with that stuff. Some people come with nothing at all. And so there's a database that we use, which is free to non profits. It's wonderful, and I can enter student information, ask the student what resources they need, and they will get a call from a specific organization with a specific resource.

So there's a way we can try to match those things. But some things are impossible. Like you can't make someone not be traumatized from prison. You can't make someone just get housing right away in Asheville. We can try to connect them to resources, but there's just a lot that the students in the program don't have and need and can't get.

Erin Sebelius: The ESOL program is a little different. In ESOL folks also have issues and barriers to success, barriers to accessing education like childcare and transportation being the big ones. But somehow in the ESOL program, the retention is a little bit higher. Maybe people don't come to me until they've got everything else worked out a little better or there's more family support in the immigrant community. 

Rebecca Massey: That's a huge one. The community support. The communities are just stronger with the students that you serve.

Erin Sebelius: I think that might be a big part. 

Amanda Wrubleski: There is a great amount of stigma associated with being a native English speaker and having a hard time with literacy. Yes, that's the other thing.

In fact, some of our students have family members that might not know that's something that they have as a challenge. And like they're talking about the support can often be lacking in that community. 

Matt Peiken: The one thing we haven't talked about yet is where your tutors come from.

So who are your tutors and what kind of training goes into being a tutor for Literacy Together? 

Erin Sebelius: I can start with ESOL. A lot of my tutors are retired folks. A lot of them have recently moved to Asheville, and find us when they're just starting to cast about for ways to get involved in the community.

A lot of ESOL tutors in particular have traveled the world, and maybe speak other languages, or have spoken other languages. Um, But they enjoy that intercultural exchange and have some experience with that. Some of my tutors come from immigrant families, even, first, second generation, and they say, somebody helped my parents succeed or somebody, even somebody helped me succeed.

And so I want to give back. 

Matt Peiken: Does that help when they have a cultural Simpatico there. Does that make a difference? 

Erin Sebelius: I think it can help. Yeah. Yeah. I think it depends on the situation, how needed that is, but I think it's always the better you can relate to your tutor or your student the easier that intimacy and that bond is going to come.

Matt Peiken: Yeah. So getting back to who your tutors are and what they train in. So it's one thing to know how to read. It's another thing to know how to teach people how to read. How do you do that? 

Erin Sebelius: Same with speaking languages, and then I'll pass it over to Rebecca, but in ESOL, yeah, just because you can speak English doesn't mean you can teach it, right?

But I have a training that all of my volunteers go through that's about six to eight hours, depending on the situation. If they're going to teach online, they get a little bit more training in specifically how to do that. They're going to teach in person. It focuses more on the best practices of teaching in general and the curriculum that we use, a little bit about the culture of the students, of course, and the system that we find ourselves in, the mandated federal testing that we have to use in the levels and so forth.

But, yeah, it's a training that all tutors take. And then once they're done with that, they can be matched with a student. And then they have me and my associate as support for their entire tenure with us. 

Amanda Wrubleski: And we have volunteers in our ESOL program from all over the world. One thing that's unique about that program, too, is that some of the pairs get together virtually for their sessions.

There's one in Nigeria, there's people all over the country.

Matt Peiken: I always thought COVID started the remote learning thing, but I know that Some in some fields, remote learning has been going on for a long time.

Did that fundamentally change how your tutoring happens? Was any tutoring for Literacy Together, was any tutoring happening online pre pandemic? 

Erin Sebelius: No, the pandemic started it for us. We had to immediately pivot in March and April and May of 2020. I taught all of my volunteers and all of my students how to have their classes online.

I tend to think that the one on one in person is the most effective model. But for the students that have the big barriers of transportation and child care, the online option is a salvation for them.

Lots of people couldn't do this if we didn't offer it online. So it's great that now we can offer both models, and people can choose what works best for them. 

Matt Peiken: I would imagine that in schools, that for young people in particular, that any time off screen is better than on, because they have so much screen time in their lives anyway.

Amanda Wrubleski: Yeah, I think that it can be so hard for our young people, especially in our afterschool programs. They've been at school all day, and they're tired when it comes to the end of the day. So having a volunteer who can be there, make it personal, create an individual lesson plan, and make it fun with games and activities and getting up to move around when it's necessary.

Those are the kinds of things that are hard to accomplish just over a screen. 

Matt Peiken: One of the things I touched on and I didn't follow up when you mentioned, who was the, there was a woman's name you brought up who's the method of teaching that you. 

Amanda Wrubleski: Oh, Orton Gillingham model. 

Matt Peiken: Orton Gillingham. I don't know Orton Gillingham.

I remember There was a podcast series a few years ago that, it was an awakening to me. I hadn't heard about this controversy about a method of learning.

Rebecca Massey: It's the whole language versus phonics based. Yes. Learning. Yes. 

Matt Peiken: And I'm wondering, do you come across any of these differences?

Are any schools or districts around here, Teaching differently than, doing the image-based learning. What was the 

Rebecca Massey: whole, whole language throw it on people and hope it sticks. . Yeah. Yeah. That's a dismissive way to say that. That's not exactly right, but 

Matt Peiken: whole language, I, it was where, if you don't know the word, we're gonna sh if it's a book, see it enough times.

If you, or if you've see it enough times or if it's a picture book, what do you guess the word is supposed to be? And there was a whole podcast series about this. Blanking on the name. I know what you're talking about. Yeah. That 

Erin Sebelius: movie too. That documentary, the right to read is a really good explanation of that.

Matt Peiken: Yeah. So I'm wondering, did you were in the organization before the, this news really broke out about how this is not the right way to learn to read. Were you already teaching in this method and have you had to work with schools or has that been a delicate dance of How the orton gillingham way is maybe different or not perfectly overlapping with how other schools teach? 

Rebecca Massey: So there's sort of like three different things going on.

So her program teaches totally different than the way my program teaches, which is somewhat different than how youth literacy teaches, and so that when adult literacy, if someone doesn't know how to read, and very likely has an undiagnosed learning disability, they need phonics based instruction to make that work.

So here's the letter, here's the sound, here's how you put them together. If someone is dyslexic, that is pretty much the only way they're going to learn how to read, but it's totally different. Like best practices in her program are completely different. So she can't, yeah, you would go insane if you had to teach phonics to it wouldn't make any sense.


Erin Sebelius: we have phonics as a piece of our curriculum at times for certain students at certain levels. Yeah but we have a completely different approach. Namely we're teaching listening, speaking, reading, and writing all together. It's not just about reading. In fact, it's more about listening and speaking because that's the way we communicate most.

Matt Peiken: Okay. So what are your challenges as an organization? It seems like you've been doing this a long time. You've got three Very distinct programs. You've got case histories. You know who your students are and what their challenges are. You may not be able to meet all their challenges. You're not trying to meet all their challenges, but you understand where they're coming from.

What does your organization need? What, where are your challenges in terms of the work you're trying to do day to day? 

Amanda Wrubleski: We need more people in the community to care about the work that we're doing and to care about the challenges that we have in Buncombe County regarding literacy. 

Matt Peiken: Why does the community support from afar, aside from people who donate, you, every nonprofit needs donations and people support the organization that way.

But in a broader level, why is community understanding and support vital to the work you're doing? 

Amanda Wrubleski: It's essential in reducing the stigma that a lot of adults in our community face in reaching their literacy goals. And I also believe that if more people knew about the challenges that we have, we would have a better community that's stronger, healthier, safer.

And I think the first step is to care. And People can do that in a lot of different ways. They can give up their voice and share information that they learn about Literacy Together and the work that we're doing. People can give up their time and volunteer across any of our programs. Or like you said, people can donate and give those resources that are essential to helping people achieve their dreams and goals.

Matt Peiken: Most nonprofits fight for funding and struggle. Is funding an issue now. If it is, is it more so now or differently so than it was years ago. 

Amanda Wrubleski: Yeah funding is a challenge. It costs more to live in Asheville and Buncombe County now than it ever has before. And so the need to increase funding and build that kind of support is as great as it's ever been.

Especially when we have the need of students. We have almost 80 students in our ESOL waitlist right now waiting for a tutor. So yeah, the need for funding, the need for support, the need for awareness is essential. 

Matt Peiken: One thing I didn't ask you is about what material you use to teach reading.

I know particularly in conservative led states, books are being pulled from libraries, school libraries and I'm wondering do you worry about that, or are you dealing with culturally sensitive material in any way or material that Might strike a legislature as being we don't want this.

This is this might make students Uncomfortable that seems to be a buzzword now in terms of the rationale for why books are pulled. Can you speak to young people who come into your program, what they're reading? 

Amanda Wrubleski: Yeah, so we get a lot of donations from different organizations, including some really wonderful culturally sensitive books that represent communities of color and voices that haven't typically been represented in books in the past.

And so we're fortunate to have a lot of donations for those types of books. But at our afterschool programs, the activities are really phonics based instructions and games. There's less reading books that happens at the after school sites and it's more activities. 

We should talk about our fourth program. We partner with Buncombe Partnership for Children for Dolly Parton's Imagination Library. 

Matt Peiken: Okay, I saw that. So the Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, this is a nationwide program, right? 

Speaker 5: It is, yeah. 

Matt Peiken: So is this? Does this go specifically for tutoring organizations such as yours, or is it also in schools? How is that implemented locally? 

Amanda Wrubleski: It's specific to the community. What we do is we partner with the Partnership for Children to make this possible. And what our hand is in this is basically helping families sign up for the program. If they sign up, then their child is mailed a free book every single month from the time they're born until the time they turn five.

So this is a great way to instill that love of reading and learning at a young age and get books in the hands of kids who might not otherwise have them. 

Matt Peiken: And was that age group, from pre five, was that a donut hole in terms of literacy that up until programs such as this just largely wasn't being paid attention to?

Erin Sebelius: Yeah. Because we don't have universal preschool in this country yet, I'll optimistically say yet. So yeah, kids are entering kindergarten not prepared to learn how to read because they haven't had that at home. 

Matt Peiken: This may sound almost like predictably true, and tell me if this is not true. necessarily the case, but those kind of building blocks to appreciate reading even at that age at three years old, four years old, how critical is that to the success of making someone literate in early elementary school, in middle school, high school, and keeping up that appreciation.

Even through some of the challenges that you were talking about, Rebecca, as life challenges come in, you've got those foundational blocks already there. Is that critical even at three, four years old? 

Erin Sebelius: Yes. And that's why Dolly started the program. I don't have the stats off the top of my head about the, how many hundreds of thousands of millions of words a kindergartner doesn't hear if they don't have any reading in their first five years.

But I can't remember either. It's critical. 

Amanda Wrubleski: Yeah, a child reading at a young age impacts their life forever and a mother's reading skill is the greatest determinant of her child's future academic success. It even outweighs other factors like neighborhood and family income of where somebody's coming from.

Matt Peiken: A mother's reading skill is the greatest determiner of a child's success. That's interesting that, is it just because they can sit with them at any time? And that is the person in the family who tends to be the one who sits with their kids and reads? 

Amanda Wrubleski: I think so. Yeah, we get that stat from pro literacy.

But yeah, I think the idea is that if you have a parent who's reading to their child, That is going to impact the kind of education that your child eventually has, which is why it's so important. 

Matt Peiken: Yeah anything else that we haven't talked about or anything that we need to let people know about?

Amanda Wrubleski: I'd like to say maybe one more thing. Yeah, please. People find us for so many different reasons. Sometimes our students want to be able to find a better paying job. Sometimes they want to be able to support their kids in school.

And then sometimes they want to feel more connected to the community. There's one person from Argentina who was telling me that when she was learning English, Her big goal was that she wanted to learn how to be able to tell a joke in English, because in her home country and in her community, everybody knows she's hilarious and she's funny, but she wanted people here in this community to know that she's funny.

And I love that. And that just goes to show how unique and how different all of the students are in our programs. 

Matt Peiken: Did you ever get to hear her be funny? 

Amanda Wrubleski: She's hilarious. She is hilarious.

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