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North Hills Monthly

Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council Helps Students Go Far Beyond Basic Reading Skills

Jul 30, 2015 01:34PM ● By Shelly Tower Rushe
Each year, the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council (GPLC) provides educational programs for 4,600 people. These programs reach far beyond basic reading skills and include writing, math, GED (high school diploma equivalent) prep, English as a Second Language (ESL), workplace skills, workforce prep, Families for Learning, computer skills and more.

But don’t get the wrong idea about who GPLC serves. “Very few of our American students are illiterate. Very few have no reading or writing skills. And they come to us with a goal in mind,” explained Greg Mims, GPLC public relations director.

Whether it’s to get a better job, start a new career or just reach a goal, the reasons are as varied as the students. “There’s no racial or age boundary here,” said Mims. “How old do you have to be to realize you missed the boat?

“One of the biggest goals of our ESL students is to learn the language to get a better job,” he continues, “and this usually leads to citizenship.” Mims gives the example of a student who was an engineer in his native country, but was working in Pittsburgh as a gas station attendant. He was unable to secure a position in his field until he learned English.

Adult Basic Education programs provide students with the skills they need to pass the GED. “The test has changed to reflect business skills,” explained Mims. “It’s computer only. It’s timed and includes an essay so students need to know keyboarding.” GPLC also teaches study skills to assist students in this journey.

At the core of many of these programs are GPLC volunteers, and opportunities vary based on interests and education. Tutoring is a popular choice for volunteers; however, state law requires that new volunteer tutors possess a four-year degree or are working toward one. Volunteer tutors are asked to make a six-month commitment and hold two tutoring sessions per week to equal four hours of instruction time.

Other volunteer opportunities available include teaching mini-classes (one session per week); assisting a student in GPLC’s downtown location; tutoring a refugee; teaching English as a Second Language; fundraising activities; technology instruction; and serving on event committees or as teaching assistants.

Volunteers are given lesson plan help and staff instruction. Literacy and ESL tutors are also expected to complete a 12-hour training session, though Mims is quick to point out that ESL tutors do not need to know a second language.

Donna Fogle has been teaching adult literacy for 22 years. Her journey began at a satellite site for Carlow University’s literacy program through the Millvale Library, and when Carlow lost its funding, Fogle approached the library for assistance. From there, GPLC stepped in and backed her efforts.

She now works with three additional volunteers from GPLC to cover social studies, reading, science and math in a one-on-one environment. Class sizes average approximately five students who work with each volunteer for approximately 30 minutes, for a total of two hours per week.

“They all have a reason they dropped out,” said Fogle of her students, who range in age from youth to octogenarian. Whether it was a lack of teacher support, social struggles or something else, Fogle stressed that making their GED a priority is the key to moving forward.

She recalled one middle-aged student who insisted that she couldn’t read. Fogle gave her a book and challenged her to read one chapter per week so that they could discuss it at their next meeting. She soon found that the student could read, but that her challenge was vocabulary words. “She read the entire book in just a couple of weeks,” said Fogle. “I love when I can make that lightbulb go off.”

And while the GED is difficult, Fogle tells all of her students that it is a challenge worth taking. “Any education you get will be an asset for the rest of your life,” she said.

So what comes after these students learn to read, pass the GED or learn English? While Mims stresses that they are not an employment agency, GPLC does have a transition manager to work with students on the next step, whether that includes looking into post-secondary schools or trade schools, or providing resume help. “The GED is not the end,” he said. 

GPLC is always looking for dedicated volunteers. To learn more, visit