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When it comes to crucial life skills, the ability to read is at the top.
Reading allows us to escape from our troubles without traveling anywhere. It allows us to learn new skills, history, and information about the world around us.
It allows us to climb to new heights in the workforce.
It even improves health.
Those that know how to read benefit from increased analytical skills and stimulated memories while slowing down cognitive decline in our later years.
It’s one of the few abilities on earth that can significantly benefit every living person. Yet, many adults worldwide and within the United States cannot read in some capacity.
Some are illiterate, with no ability at all. Others can only read at a low education level, hampering their ability to harness their true potential in society.
Many of those people live here in Baxter County, and that’s why the Twin Lakes Literacy Council has devoted itself to teaching adults, new immigrants, and children how to read.
“So, we’ve been around since 1986,” said Heather Powell, executive director and program coordinator for the Twin Lakes Literacy Council. “We started out just as a group of concerned volunteers who wanted to help people in the community. They were helping new immigrants to get their citizenship and learn English so they could contribute back to the community. They helped children who were struggling in school.”
According to ProLiteracy, a reading program used to help teach adult students to read by the council, literacy is defined as the ability to understand, evaluate, use and engage with written text to participate in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.
In the U.S., the ability to read can dictate several things, from high school drop-out rates, to incarceration, employment, and civic engagement.
And while literacy rates climbed in the U.S. from 2000 to 2017, 23 million American adults still lack high school credentials, which means lower work wages across the board. Those workers 25 and older without a high school education have the highest unemployment rate, clocking in at 5.4%.
Those that do have jobs rank among the lowest median earners in the country, bringing home an average of $592 a week.
“They’re here because something in the mainstream didn’t work for them,” said Powell on the adults who receive tutelage from the Twin Lake Literacy Council. “We don’t know whether they were sick a lot as a child, so they missed a lot of school. Maybe they were military or some other kind of transient lifestyle for the family, so they bounced from school to school. Or maybe they just dropped out.”
After being founded in 1986, the Twin Lakes Literacy Council was incorporated five years later before finally achieving its non-profit status in 1998.
The council consists of two staff members, a board of directors consisting of nine members, various advisors, and 30 volunteer tutors.
Together, they work to teach their students, of which there are 50 this year, how to read and do math, as well as other workplace soft skills. They also help students study for standardized tests such as a CDL, Compass, or ASVAB exam and prepare for their U.S. Citizenship exam if they are a new immigrant to the country.
The council also works with adults and children to overcome their struggles with reading if diagnosed with Dyslexia.
Roughly two-thirds of the council’s current students are adults, with the remaining third being children. Half of the council’s budget to teach adults comes from state funding. No state funding is provided to help teach children how to read.
Arkansas currently has a budget of $675,000 per year for the various literacy councils and reading organizations throughout the state.
And while it receives some of that money from the state, the remaining funds come from various grants, including a $5,000 grant from Dollar General every year. The council’s adult program is currently funded at $35,000 per year from grants, while its children’s program only receives $3,000 in grants.
“Everything else for them is donations or fundraisers that we do,” Powell said. “I think they think because they’ve got the school system, then they don’t need extra monies for that. Fair enough, that’s OK. But there are children who slip through the cracks. A child moves here from California and moves here at the end of second grade and misses the testing. So, it may be years before they can get to them, and by then, he’s missing how many years of knowing that he is dyslexic.”
So how about Baxter County?
A quick look at the Program for the International Assessment for Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Skills Map shows that Baxter County is maintaining a literacy average comparable to that of the entire state.
PIAAC breaks down literacy into three levels. Adults sitting at level one or below are at risk for difficulties with literacy. Adults at the upper end of this level can read short texts and understand the meaning enough to perform simple tasks. However, they may have difficulty piecing together multiple sources of information. These adults tend to have a limited vocabulary.
They represent 18% of Baxter County residents.
The remaining 72% of residents fall between level two, near proficiency, and level three, proficient. Those numbers are 38% and 44%, respectively. Out of Arkansas’s 100 counties, Baxter County ranks sixth in literacy. It ranks 95th out of 100 for those with literacy levels below level one.
“I think the state as a whole is at 25%,” Powell said. “A few years back, we were down to 14%, but I think that we’ve had enough young people who may have dropped out of school and other children coming up who, for whatever reason, can’t read.”
To help their students, the Twin Lakes Literacy Council uses the ProLiteracy program to help adult students learn how to read. The council also uses the Barton Reading System to help those students who have been diagnosed with Dyslexia.
For younger children, the council and its tutors rely on the very same techniques that have been proven to teach children how to read since 1955.
Both adult and children students receive two one-hour tutoring sessions per week. Those participating in other tutoring programs for skills like math or citizenship testing receive tutoring for one hour per week.
The Twin Lakes Literacy Council has seen a decline in tutors since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and is actively seeking more help from Baxter County community members.
For more information, or if you would like to tutor or donate to the Twin Lakes Literacy Council, please contact (870) 425-7323.