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Students Protest City’s Elimination of Adult Literacy Classes


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Press Contact: Kevin Douglas, United Neighborhood Houses; Betsy Plum, New York Immigration Coalition,  Main Phone: 860-336-6401; 585-739-9922, 
New York  (Wednesday, November 18, 2015)

Students Protest City’s Elimination of Adult Literacy Classes

Advocates Say Administration Eliminated Classes for Thousands

(New York, NY) While Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Council have been vocal about their progressive vision since coming into office nearly two years ago, it appears that at least one group of New Yorkers are being left even further behind: thousands of immigrants and other New Yorkers that struggle with English literacy skills have recently found their City-funded adult literacy classes eliminated. While the funding cut supporting these services took effect on July 1, advocates from the New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy (NYCCAL) say most literacy classes start up in the fall and so the drastic cutback largely flew under the radar until now. According to NYCCAL, the city eliminated over $6 million in funding for community-based literacy programs that help people learn English and earn a high school equivalency diploma. As a result, students that planned on returning to local nonprofits or CUNY campuses to continue their studies this fall were instead turned away.

Kevin Douglas, Co-Director of Policy & Advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, said, “We have a Mayor and City Council that are taking a serious look at issues of inequality in our City and in many ways are moving in the right direction. However, in terms of educational access for adult learners, there’s been a serious stumble.” He added, “We’re really talking about people who are on losing side of the tale of two cities—not being able to communicate in English or have a diploma in hand when interviewing with employers are two of the surest ways to find oneself shut out of meaningful social and economic opportunities. This reality was laid bare in the New York Times nail salon exposé, and so such a massive disinvestment in the foundational skills of New Yorkers is truly baffling and upsetting to community members.”

Speaking earlier this year in a plea for lawmakers not to go through with the cut, Juan Carlos Sosa, an ESOL student at the Brooklyn-based Fifth Avenue Committee, said, “English class helped me so much. It offered me more [of a] chance. When you don’t speak English in this place, you don’t go anywhere. English is the key to the door for us. I’m at this rally today because we have to express what we’re feeling to the people, and we need English to do that!”

Echoing his remarks was Estela Tepale, a student at Make the Road New York’s Queens program. Having emigrated from Mexico nearly a decade ago, Tepale said, “For me, this class is very important because I want to find a better job to support my children. My classmates want to get better jobs or go to college or training programs, but do not have the money to pay for the literacy classes.”

Demonstrators were joined by a number of City Council members, including Council Member Carlos Menchaca, who chairs the Council’s Immigration Committee. Addressing the crowd, Menchaca said, “We find ourselves at a turning point in our city—one that will be formative for thousands of New Yorkers. That is, we have the choice to either continue our commitment to adult education, and to the opportunities that it offers our friends and neighbors, or to turn our backs at a time where working class families, immigrants, women of color, and those formerly incarcerated need our attention the most. If our city is going to continue to lead on key issues, we cannot forget this important resource. I am proud to stand with NYCCAL, with my council colleagues, and with New Yorkers to demand that adult education must be a priority.”

Joining Menchaca was Council Education Committee Chair Daniel Dromm who said, “When we teach adults to read, we empower them both intellectually and financially. I stand with adult literacy advocates and my colleagues in the Council in calling for a restoration and expansion of this funding that improves the lives of so many hardworking low-income and immigrant New Yorkers by opening doors to employment, higher education and many other opportunities."

The New York Immigration Coalition also said the City needs to do more. “We call on Mayor de Blasio and his Administration to reverse their cuts to adult literacy programs that offer critical opportunities to New York's most vulnerable. With 1.7 million New Yorkers lacking a high school diploma, English proficiency, or both, funding must not only be restored to the over 6,000 classroom seats cut in the last budget, but New York City must make a tangible investment to community-based adult education that seeks to meaningfully correct the field's deficit," said Betsy Plum, Director of Special Projects. "Until then, we are leaving New Yorkers behind, denying them a basic human right, and threatening the success of key mayoral initiatives that seek to strengthen the workforce, fight poverty, better early childhood education, and increase DACA enrollment."

Nonprofit providers at the rally stressed that the stakes were high for their community members. "The Arab-American Family Support Center stands in solidarity with community-based organizations, CUNY, students, and city leaders in drawing awareness about the adult education crises occurring in our City,” said Irfan Ahmed, the organization’s Financial Literacy Coordinator. He continued “In our community, students face multiple cultural and linguistic barriers when accessing fundamental services that are vital to their economic security. As they seek to establish a better foothold in this City, we want to ensure that they can rely on our adult literacy services to overcome any obstacles they face.”

John Hunt, Executive Director of Adult Community Learning at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, spoke to the reality of the diminished capacity of providers, saying, “So many New Yorkers are coming to us asking to learn English or get their high school equivalency diplomas so they can get better jobs or help their kids in school. But we have to tell them that there is no space in our classes and they will have to wait for months or even years to enroll.”

While many of the protestors said they believe the Mayor’s rhetoric comes from the right place, they think the City is missing the mark in the execution of its agenda. Ira Yankwitt, Executive Director of Literacy Assistance Center, stated, “For an administration committed to empowering low-income and immigrant parents, families, and communities, cutting funding for adult literacy and English language classes is profoundly short-sighted, and undermines their own economic justice agenda.”

Julie Quinton, Adult Literacy Director at Make the Road New York, agreed, saying, “It's wonderful, but it's not enough for our leaders to raise wages, open Pre K seats, or preserve affordable housing. Today over 1.7 million adults need classes to learn English and earn their High School diplomas. This is the moment to invest more in adult education, not the moment to cut back. We demand that our progressive political allies put adult education where it belongs, at the heart of a progressive political agenda to support struggling New Yorkers.

At the end of the day, providers and advocates say it’s really about whether the City is going to capitalize on the potential of marginalized New Yorkers. “Increasing access to adult literacy and education opportunities is a modest public investment that yields long-term benefits by helping individuals obtain employment, attain self-sufficiency, and pursue further education. There is an urgent demand for adult literacy services designed around the needs of students with criminal justice involvement,” said Ronald F. Day, an Associate Vice President at The Fortune Society. “These adult literacy services create contextualized educational content, foster supportive learning communities, promote reductions in the likelihood of recidivism, and allow students to persist in making literacy gains that promote a brighter future.”  

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New York City Coalition for Adult Literacy www.nyccaliteracy.org @NYCCAL



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