top of page
  • Kinga Rajzak

New York City’s immigrant communities secure funding for adult literacy

CJS News

By Kinga Rajzak

Downtown New York City

NEW YORK - Valikhan Tuleshov was nervous, and worried about his English before he started taking literacy classes.

He grew up in Russia, where he studied English, but never heard the spoken language. His English education did not go beyond the memorization of simple words.

Once he immigrated to the US as a scientist, he realized that without proper English he would not manage. So, he proceeded to take community-based literacy classes that helped him to express himself, and manage every day situations.

“Health, work, entertainment, travel, rest and more. Everything was reflected in the education process,” said Tuleshov, 56 in an e-mail. “America is a country of emigrants, and in order for them to socialize faster, this program is extremely necessary.”

Adult literacy programs provide immigrant communities with a successful pathway for social integration and economic independence, but with the Trump administration’s stiff anti-immigration policies, and the mayor’s wavering support for adult education, these programs face future uncertainty.

“In my experience it is not that selected officials are deliberately reluctant to fund these programs,” said Councilman Carlos Menchaca, chair of the City Council’s immigration committee. “It is more that the broader issue here is immigration reform, and that topic tends to place emphasis on policies that make it difficult to see how adult literacy fits in.”

On June 14, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and the City Council voted to restore last year’s $12 million budget for literacy funding for 2019. The mayor’s decision came after New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy (NYCCAL), and 30 participating organizations had rallied around City Hall, and demanded that city officials recognize the importance of literacy services.

Students and immigrants celebrated the mayor’s budget ruling, but community leaders did not rejoice. They pointed out that failing to secure the funding for the upcoming years, would mean that the sum of $12 million could be withdrawn or reduced as soon as next year.

De Blasio’s move also demonstrates that the city is reluctant to vote for a permanent budget to support adult literacy programs that primarily benefit immigrant families.

“Our students are self motivated, they want to be here,” said Jonathan Eckblad, who is a full time teacher at University Settlement. “They are grateful you are helping them to branch out.”

There are 3,3 million immigrants from around 150 countries in New York, comprising 45 percent of the city’s population. Around 2,2 million adults in New York City, including immigrants and native English-speakers need literacy-building services.

Currently literacy programs, including education for high school equivalency diploma (HSED), or English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) can only serve around 62,000 - 70 000 adults at any given time.

During the Obama administration the city pledged to help the most vulnerable New Yorkers, and added $12 million to the existing $3 million - $3.5 million literacy budget.

However, securing this extra funding has become more difficult the last two years.

“The $12 million …, we need to see if it will exists next year,” said Michael Hunter, director of adult literacy programs at University Settlement. “Having these doubts is not a good way to run educational programs.”

Many literacy programs in the city rely on funding from the City Council and New York State’s Adult Literacy Education (ALE), and don’t require legal documentation about immigration status, furthermore don’t demand that literacy students go into work after the program.

Federal funding comes through Title II. of the Work Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and requires the student’s private information, along with their social security number, and that the student goes into work right after finishing the literacy course.

Literacy program providers that receive funding from a mix of sponsors have to decide, how the variously funded seats are filled in class.

“The most seats we offer for literacy are paid for by WIOA, that is 240 seats and those are the hardest to fill,” said Hunter. “For ALE we have 120 seats, and for the City Council 108. We know for these we will have more students on the waiting list.”

Ira Yankwitt, executive director at Literacy Assistance Center said, that many students come from backgrounds, or home countries where governments are not trusted. So, they are suspicious about showing their papers.

“The purpose of literacy programs is not to incite fear, but to establish safe havens where people can learn and find support,” said Amy Torres, director of policy and advocacy at Chinese American Planning Council (CPC). She said that excessive bureaucracy negatively impacts enrollment numbers.

But, often the impediment to enrollment is not a social security number.

Torres said, that a young mother who has all the legal documentation, but has little children, and does not work or plans to work, cannot be assigned to a federally funded literacy seat, because afterwards, she will simply not go into work. Older people who are out of the workforce face the same issue.

This is one of the reasons why state and council funding fills up quickly.

On the other hand, most of the literacy classes are three to ten months long, but they are not long enough to teach students thoroughly. Federally funded literacy courses that expect an immediate transition to jobs after class, would require more time to prepare students for the job market.

“Things are very job focused,” said Eckblad. “When you are from somewhere else, and you know no English, you need more time. Even if you make progress, you cannot go immediately into a job. Jobs require high levels of English.”

Kevin Douglas, co-director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, said some DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students fear their safety, and have dropped out of literacy programs following Trump’s harsh policies and statements.

New York City has 47,200 DACA recipients, that is only 5 percent of DACA recipients nationwide.

“Because of the hostility coming from Washington, and because ICE is becoming more aggressive every day, immigrants of all stripes, including those with legal status, or in the process of acquiring legal status are more afraid, and less trusting of government services and spaces,” said Menchaca.

Menchaca believes the city is not doing enough to protect immigrants who want to learn, and assimilate.

One of the biggest threats to literacy programs, said Yankwitt, is the demand by officials to measure success by a limited metric.

“It makes no sense,” said Hunter about officials who try to use a measuring stick for the success of literacy classes, but fail to understand the favorable outcomes of education. For example, a mother who learns how to read and speak in English, will be able to help her kid with homework. This will support the child’s social integration, and prevent anti-social behavior.

“You know when everyone is complaining that we want people to speak English, then how come that you don’t put down money,” said Hunter. “Lets talk national security. Why would you not want to educate people, and reach them trough education, it is not just about literacy.”

bottom of page