A large portion of Union County residents suffer due to a lack of educational attainment and several within the community are stepping forward in an attempt to remedy the problem.
A group of community leaders, educators and concerned citizens met Friday morning at USC-Union to discuss the community’s educational needs and possible solutions – primarily the reformation of the Union County Literacy Council.
Those in attendance were welcomed by Dr. Susanne Gunter, director of the Union County Learning Center, which was followed by a presentation – led by Upstate Workforce Investment Board Program and Grants Manager Beth Fowler – which included statistical information as well as improvement efforts thus far.
In October 2009, an education task force convened to identify major priorities, one of which was adult literacy. The task force identified an opportunity to revive a literacy council in Union to address educational challenges, in hope of impacting the educational attainment of adults in the community.
The Union County Literacy Council, which is currently inactive, was incorporated in 1984 and the date on which it was dissolved is unknown.
When students apply for enrollment at Adult Education, they are given a basic skills assessment and 84 percent of those who enroll score below an adult basic skill level.
“I recognized the need when I was at Excelsior and a man came in to register his child for free or reduced lunch,” Gunter said.
She said the man was in tears and she realized he could not read. Helping the man fill out the forms – enabling his child to have free or reduced lunch – put the direness of the community’s educational needs in perspective for Gunter. She also mentioned some individuals – usually in the 40-60 age range – are not prepared for the classroom setting at Adult Education and are in need of one-on-one tutoring.
She believes a literacy council would enhance improvements already being made at Adult Education. In the 2009-10 school year, 61 adults graduated from Adult Education with GEDs or diplomas.
Data from the 2000 Census indicates 33.1 percent of Union County adults 25 years of age and older have not attained a high school diploma or GED and nearly 14 percent of those actually have less than a ninth-grade education.
Last month, 16 percent of all unemployment insurance claimants in Union County had less than a high school diploma or GED. Those claimants are regularly applying for jobs, but 89.6 percent of the jobs currently listed in the county require a high school diploma or equivalent at the least, heavily stacking the odds against those applicants who lack diplomas.
“Those people are looking for jobs that don’t exist,” Fowler said.
The Union County Literacy Council could provide one-on-one training to prepare students for future classroom settings and eventual employment.
Union Housing Authority Resident Services Coordinator Carolyn Rutherford sang the praises of one of her high school teachers – Kitty Carson – and the one-on-one attention she received as a student.
“Sometimes we need that touch,” Rutherford said. “If it wasn’t for this lady, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now. I didn’t have shoes and clothes, and she brought me her daughter’s stuff. She built my self esteem.”
Carson, who was present at the discussion, mentioned the importance of arts in education.
“We need to advocate teaching arts, regardless of the state saying we don’t need it,” she said. “That is what keeps a lot of students in school.”
Carson is a civic leader and former Union High School drama teacher.
Pat Littlejohn – who retired as athletic director at Jonesville High School after a 31-year career in the district – expressed his own concern about students dropping out of school.
“They would tell me, ‘I will only be here two more weeks, coach, because then I will be old enough to quit,’” Littlejohn said. “No talking or preaching would change their minds because, in many cases, that’s what their parents and grandparents had done.”
Littlejohn currently teaches GED classes at the Dollar General Distribution Center in Jonesville.
The education task force researched successful literacy councils in Greenville and Laurens to serve as models for the potential council in Union.
“The council would support and train volunteers to facilitate one-on-one instruction so (adult students) can get to a level that GED attainment is manageable,” Fowler said. “We are looking for volunteers and people who feel strongly about that type of work.”
Union County School District Director of Secondary Education Cindy Langley said she believes a partnership with the literacy council reflects the new vision statement of Union County Schools: Union County Schools and its stakeholders commit to students first in building community, excellence and life-long learning.
Volunteers would be required to have six hours of training which would include how to tutor, materials to use and various learning styles. Tutoring would be about a two hour per week commitment.
Anyone interested in becoming involved with the new and improved Union County Literacy Council should contact Beth Fowler at 427-4119 or Susanne Gunter at 429-1770.