First Literacy builds upon a strong history and moves toward greater success in the Boston area

“When the long-time Executive Director retired in 2010, there was a sense in the literacy community that our best days were behind us.” Skye Morrison Kramer, the current CEO of First Literacy, had a daunting job when she took the helm almost two years ago. “How do you take an organization with a history of success and continue that tradition — and even build upon those strengths?”

First Literacy, established in 1988, serves the Greater Boston area with a mission to “support adults who need and want to improve their literacy skills.” They do this through a multi-pronged approach. First, they work directly with community-based Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs, awarding grants to partner-programs for classes and valuable support services. Secondly, they provide technical assistance, with professional development workshops for the staff of partner-programs, and formal annual visits to each site, offering programmatic advice as needed. Third, they advocate for adult learners and for the ABE field itself through public awareness and advocacy efforts. Finally, they award scholarships and provide adult mentors for adult learners who have graduated from ABE programs and are continuing on to college or advanced skills training.

The need for quality Adult Basic Education is growing rapidly in the Boston area and has been since First Literacy was founded as the Boston Adult Literacy Fund 24 years ago. The Boston Foundation report “Breaking the Language Barrier: A report of English Language Services in Greater Boston” notes that, “Greater Boston’s English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) providers currently have the capacity to serve only 5% of the over 200,000 immigrants with limited English language proficiency who live in the region.” As of December 2010, over 10,000 residents were on waiting lists for either ABE or ESOL classes in the Greater Boston area. The extent of the need for literacy services is only increasing with time, and literacy providers have had difficulty filling the need.

First Literacy plays a crucial role in addressing this need for literacy/ABE classes and services in Greater Boston. While public funding does exist, it is not nearly enough. The director of one First Literacy partner-program recently wrote, “Because of First Literacy’s support, we are able to offer appropriate instruction for immigrants in our full-time English for Employment program. If this funding were not available, these students would be on a waiting list for classes in our part-time evening program.”

First Literacy’s support of community-based ABE programs is the cornerstone of their work. Through a competitive selection process, they provide funds and technical assistance to adult education providers in Boston, Brookline, Cambridge and Watertown. Classes funded include basic literacy, math, GED/Pre-GED, and computer classes. Services funded through First Literacy include childcare and personal and career counseling.

In 2011 these programs collectively educated 1,505 adults. Each program is required to submit a year-end report on the gains made by learners during the course of the year. Collective gains for 2011 included: 636 adults made measurable education progress, 538 improved computer skills, 70 obtained their GED, 46 entered college, 152 upgraded their employment, and 255 entered employment. After a re-organization of the infrastructure and some strategic thinking, First Literacy is expanding the services they offer to their partner-programs and considering increasing their service area. Their new professional development program has positioned them as a leader in the field.

Through interviews at site visits and surveys of program staff, First Literacy determined that there was a need for additional professional development for provider staff. Therefore, they created a series of workshops designed to meet this need. Topics include grant writing, obtaining and using learner feedback, student-centered practices, writing for ESOL students, and working with ABE students with learning disabilities. Response to these offerings has been overwhelmingly positive. One program officer stated, “First Literacy seems to be the only ABE professional development program in [Massachusetts] that offers support for broader learning needs of students beyond passing the GED.” Still in its first year, this is an example of the breadth of support that First Literacy is providing for the ABE field in Greater Boston. “The importance of ongoing professional development cannot be overstated,” says First Literacy Director of Programs, Michael Feher. “It is vital to increasing the effectiveness of ABE teachers, the quality of classes and program services, and ultimately, the success of adult learners as they strive to reach their educational goals.”

Fundraising is First Literacy’s biggest challenge. They find it difficult to raise funds for services designed for the adult learner. When asked what she wishes she knew before she started working as CEO, Ms. Kramer replied “Frankly, I had no idea how difficult it would be to raise funds… In my prior job, we did not seek funding from foundations; it is quite a challenge convincing potential funders that adult learners are worthy of support.”