It’s Tuesday morning at the Harlem YMCA and more than 40 students gather in a basement theater that also doubles as classroom. The students are surrounded by school paraphernalia of all kinds, binders bursting at the seams, freshly sharpened No.2 pencils and composition notebooks. One student flips through a notebook emblazoned with an image of Buzz Lightyear.
It looks like a typical classroom, but these aren’t your average students. They’re adults of all ages who hail from countries as far-flung as Yemen and Guinea, and they’re here to become literate.
Central Harlem has some of the lowest education statistics in New York. Only 20 percent of Central Harlem’s residents aged 25 and up have a college degree, according to a 2006 Department of Mental Health and Hygiene report. This is less than half the rate in Manhattan, Furthermore, 22 percent of residents have not completed high school. Organizations like the YMCA and nonprofits such as Literacy Partners are dedicated to improving those numbers and boosting adult literacy in the community. But state and federal budget cuts during the last years have made their work more challenging, reducing services, closing centers and packing more students into classrooms.
In some cases, programs have shut down altogether. Literacy Partners, for example, recently closed down two small centers in Harlem. The organization, along with many other nonprofits, receives the majority of its funding through one source, the Community Development Block Grants issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. From 2009 to 2012, federal funding for public services was reduced 20 percent.
Harlem YMCA is facing this same dilemma. In 2011, after receiving a $325,000 New York State Department of Youth and Community Development grant, the YMCA established Literacy Zones in the Bronx and Harlem, centers offering courses such as Adult Basic Education and Literacy for English Speakers of Other Languages. Just two years later, the grant was slashed more than 50 percent.
At the same time, the center does not have room for all the students that would like to register, says Thalia Ma, Harlem YMCA’s program coordinator.
“There’s so much demand for the classes and we’re just not able to offer them anymore,” said Ma. “We’re all kind of in the same situation; we’re having to either put [students] on a wait list or refer them elsewhere.”
In the past, the Literacy Zone enrolled roughly 500 students annually. Now, it serves about half that amount. Up to four levels of literacy classes were once offered, and now, there are only two, maybe three.
The classes are rigorous, meeting for three-hour sessions, four times a week. Instructor Amina Eslifani said that this year’s enrollment is the highest she’s seen in her two years teaching here. Larger class numbers, however, make it difficult for her to give each student proper attention, she said. She singlehandedly mans the classroom, flitting from table to table, encouraging students to work together in groups.
“Everybody needs help. I have to focus on each one,” said Eslifani. “I’m still trying to evaluate student levels, to split them into two groups and give them different materials.”
Like the Harlem YMCA Literacy Zone, when Literacy Partners programs reach capacity, the organization refers students to public libraries or to other programs, which also have long wait lists. Ma says it is entirely possible for students to be shuttled from one wait list to another.
“The hardest part is having to turn people away,” said Ma.
The students that manage to get in, however, are grateful. Lassana Gassama, 39, attends class at the Literacy Zone three days a week, on top of caring for his family of four and working 45 hours a week at Bronx clothing retailer. He has lived in the Bronx for 14 years and speaks English so proficiently that peers are shocked when they learn he cannot read or write well. He says he taught himself English by watching “lots of TV” and by searching YouTube for English tutorials. Yet he’s unable to read a newspaper, spell the months of the year, or handle official paperwork.
“I’m always missing something,” said Gassama, who adds that “It’s a terrible feeling. Letters from the hospital, the government, [I] don’t know what’s inside.”
Meanwhile, he is very proud of his 7-year-old daughter, who speaks English fluently. He says she knows more English than her mother, and knows some words that he doesn’t.
For literacy experts this is half the battle. When parents become literate, they become more involved in their children’s education.
“The parents really are the first and primary teacher to children, which sometimes people forget,” said Literacy Partner’s Taylor. “[Literacy] is at every step: getting your child into a good school, being able to fill out forms for services, parent teacher conferences, on and on and on.”
As of last year, less than 25 percent of students in Central Harlem performed at grade level in English, according to the Furman Center. Literacy Partners hopes programs like theirs will help break the cycle.