Literacy CNY Tackles P-O-V-E-R-T-Y With the Power of Letters and Words

Jan 28, 2020

Instructor Kevin Lucas teaches English at the SUNY EOC building on New Street in Syracuse.
Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

It’s well-established that education is often key to breaking the cycle of poverty by opening doors better-paying jobs.  But what about something as basic as literacy?  An estimated 60,000 adults in Onondaga County lack literacy skills. 


One tiny not-for-profit is trying to change that one small classroom at a time.

About a dozen English language learners listen intently as Instructor Kevin Lucas goes over the proper use of pronouns in a recent Literacy CNY class.  They’re refugees trying to get a handle of a nuanced and complicated language that most of us take for granted.  Student Marth Atiafela knows this firsthand…she’s from the Congo, but spent four years in Kenya before coming to Syracuse two months ago. 

“Kenya speaks English and Swahili.  We struggle to know English.  I know the accent is very different and difficult to pronounce in American English.”

Marth volunteered to talk to us even though it was only her third day in class.  Meanwhile, Deago Mason has been in class for a year, but unlike Marth, knew very little English when he arrived in America from Argentina three years ago.

“I remember the first day here for me, I was scared.  The teacher was just talking in English,” he said with a groan.  “He’s a very good professor, [Kevin] Lucas.  He reminds me of the good professors at university in my country.”

Deago studied biology, which Literacy CNY executive director Marsha Tait says could work to his advantage.

Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

“Some of them have education, as Deago clearly did, in his own country.  He will likely move fairly quickly through our program once he gets the hang of English because education is not foreign to him.  But we also have students who come to us with no formal education and no English at all, and that may take a little bit longer.”

Tait says Deago and Marth are among the estimated 13 percent of Syracuse residents who are foreign born and 19 percent who speak a language other than English at home. 

About 350 students take courses through Literacy CNY each year, all of them reading, writing, or speaking below the 6th grade level.  That includes those who DO speak English but did not acquire adequate literacy skills growing up.  Tait says that can be traced to the county’s high poverty rate. 

“There is no question that limited literacy or English proficiency and inter-generational poverty go hand-in-hand.  There’s ample national research that demonstrates that correlation.  So we believe very fervently here that addressing poverty in our community requires us to provide more opportunities for adults to improve their literacy and English language skills.”

Tait says lack of literacy usually comes with a wide range of other challenges tied to poverty.

“We’ve helped students who are homeless to find housing.  It may be undiagnosed learning disabilities or even medical issues.   For some students, the issue turned out to be eyesight or hearing.  We helped a student who had a dental issue to get dental care.  You name it, it ends up coming across my desk sooner or later.”

Credit Scott Willis / WAER News

That’s not to mention childhood illness, domestic violence, or substance abuse.  Tait says it’s not a simple as graduation or drop out rates, which have improved in recent years.  All those other factors could mean additional services a small literacy organization can’t provide.  Tait says they often use the 211 helpline to make referrals, or she says, it’s not unusual for her to be on the phone with the leaders of other agencies trying to solve a problem.  Even though there are strong formal and informal mechanisms for collaboration, Tait says it could be better.

“There’s always that feeling that, gee, somehow, we could be doing more together.  I think we are constrained by resources and time, and also by confidentiality issues.   There are certain kinds of information we just can’t share with each other on a wholesale basis.  That becomes a constraint in terms of working together.”

Tait says the funding might also not be there to help them do a better job coordinating, networking, and partnering with other agencies.  She says while they are state funded, the grant doesn’t begin to cover the cost of the programs they offer.  Literacy CNY is holding its 10th annual Scrabblemania tournament this coming Friday, where about 400 people are expected to compete individually or on teams sponsored by area businesses and organizations.  It’s the agency’s only annual fundraiser to supplement their operating funds. Individuals can still sign up by calling Literacy CNY at 471-1300.  More information on Scrabblemania is on their website.