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Example: How Establishing a Program Really Works

In 1984, my colleague Lindy Whiton and I were hired by a local community college and the regional employment and training consortium to start an adult literacy program in Orange, Massachusetts. The Department of Education and other entities had tried and failed at this endeavor in the past, but the area was one where the percentage of adults without high school diplomas approached 40%. The need for a program was clear.

The idea for the program had grown out of an adult literacy class that Lindy had taught the year before at the community college. Funding for the class had dried up halfway through the year, and those involved had determined to find a better way to assure services. When a grant became available, the college and employment and training consortium, with Lindy's participation, wrote a successful proposal.

Hiring staff

The proposal called for two staff members, one to teach and administer the program, the other to teach and plan curriculum. The coordinator was supposed to be "in charge," and receive a slightly higher salary. In reality, the proposed structure of the program made little sense. With only two staff members, there was no reason to create a hierarchy, which could easily have led to resentment and division. In fact, we split both the responsibilities and the salaries of the two positions equally, an arrangement far more conducive to forming a real partnership.

Both of us had experience in education and in working with adults. I had worked at the community college for several years as a counselor and co-coordinator of the peer-tutoring/peer counseling center, and had taught reading, both at the college and in elementary and junior high school. Lindy had taught reading in schools as well, and had the successful experience of teaching the adult literacy class behind her. In addition, I lived in the area where the program was to run, and had connections to both key individuals and organizations there.

Finding space

From the beginning, we wanted our own space, but there wasn't enough money in the grant to make that possible. We were given space in the local high school, Mahar, which we could use starting at 3:00 p.m. Fortunately, the teacher whose room we were assigned had agreed to the arrangement, and was very supportive. She gave us cabinet space for materials, didn't mind if we arrived while she was still dealing with students, discussed curriculum issues with us, and bantered with learners.

But it was still a high school, with all the disadvantages that entailed. Many learners had been students there, and we often heard comments: "That's the room where I flunked math two years in a row," or "That's where I lost it and hit the teacher." The school was two miles or more from the center of town, and there was no public transportation to it. The desks were small, there was no coffee machine, and the space was stark, especially at night under the fluorescent lights.

There were, however, advantages to using Mahar as well as disadvantages. There was a lot of room to move around, especially in the evening, and the building was quiet. We became friendly with the custodial staff, some of whom became supporters of the program, and others of whom became students. One older couple that worked evenings "adopted" a young woman with severe mental health issues, and made it possible for both her and us to make it through the evening on nights when she was having difficulties. And at least everyone knew where the building was. Nonetheless, we began scheming for ways to move from the first day.

Networking - Recruiting students and connecting to the community

How to recruit students was one of the first questions we had to address. The program served the North Quabbin area, nine towns covering a large area in north central Massachusetts. There was no public transportation, distances were long, and the rural hill towns were very different from Orange and Athol, the two industrial towns in the Millers River valley.

In addition, many people in the area were wary of outsiders. Programs of various kinds had come and gone, leaving the region chronically under-served. Residents didn't trust that a program would remain long enough for them to gain any benefit from it. It quickly became clear that, in this area, recruiting students and making connections in the community would be one and the same thing.

As luck would have it, a community health and human service coalition was just starting in Athol, and I became a charter member. This gave us access to virtually all the existing health and human service organizations in the area, and we took advantage of it. I arranged to do presentations at various agencies' staff meetings, so they would know we were there and what we did. Through a connection made at the coalition, we secured office privileges at a multi-service agency in Athol to supplement our "headquarters" at Mahar in Orange.

Throughout the start-up period and the rest of that first year, we did everything we could to get to know people in all sectors of the community. We made the rounds of restaurants, laundromats (we found these to be gathering places and particularly fertile ground for recruitment), drug stores, barbershops and beauty salons, supermarkets, the few neighborhood groceries left, convenience stores, and bars, introducing ourselves and explaining what we did and who we were looking for, and leaving behind fliers and posters with tear-off phone numbers. We got a few referrals from the merchants, but many more from the posters: people could quietly tear off the phone numbers and keep them for as long as necessary until they made the call. We found ourselves continually replacing posters from which all of the 20 or so phone numbers had been taken.

The posters, with tear-off numbers at the bottom, were as simple as we could make them. They looked approximately like this:

Need Help With:


Call Lindy or Phil at 345-6789


In addition to canvassing businesses, we plastered our posters on telephone poles, appeared on the local talk radio show, spent large amounts of time getting to know both administrators and line staff in community organizations and local branches of state agencies. I became chair of the Planning Committee, and ultimately joined the Steering Committee of the health and human services coalition. I became a regular denizen of the Athol YMCA, and got to know, or know better, many members of the area's business and professional community, as well as a large number of individuals with no particular affiliation, but many connections in the community through family, work, and long-time residence.

We made it a point to eat our between-classes evening meal in a local restaurant, where people could see us and find us. We did our best to inform Mahar faculty of what we were doing, and made contacts at Athol High School as well. Through a YMCA contact, I got to know several clergy, and enlisted the faith community as recruiters of students and supporters. We established firm connections with the directors of the local libraries, connections which are still in fact bearing fruit.

Each learner we had contact with brought her own network as well. Students often brought in other family members or friends, or put us in contact with either potential students or referral sources. Sometimes, the original contact would never actually begin the program, but one of his referrals would. We kept track of each contact with a potential learner, and followed up with those who neither entered the program nor specifically told us they wouldn't.

In Summary

It is important to understand that, even with all this activity, it took time for our efforts to be rewarded. In the first year (really about eight months, because of funding realities), we saw a total of 19 students. While several of these obtained GEDs, and many of the rest continued into the following year, there were still nights when no one showed up. But we did, and everyone knew it. By the end of that first year, the community was beginning to believe that we would actually be there for a while.

There was no funding for that summer, but we kept contact with learners and taught some classes on a reduced schedule. In the fall, we were back full time, and the student population increased. In that second year, we saw over 40 students; in the third, when we finally moved to a storefront in the center of town, about 70; and since then (for more than a dozen years), the number has consistently been over 100. Learners and the community had to believe that we would come back, that we wouldn't abandon them once they had gotten started. By the third year, and since, word -of-mouth kept the program full, and we no longer had to recruit students.

Keeping a high profile in the community and continuing to make contacts, however, must go on for the life of the program. People at other organizations leave and are replaced, former learners move away, business people come and go. If a program is to be seen as part of the community, the staff of that program has to be part of the community. Over the years, as the Orange program became an arm of The Literacy Project, changed its quarters three times, and changed site directors, its involvement in the community has continued. The current site director was recently honored as Orange Citizen of the Month for her involvement in the community, and several learners have been similarly honored as well.

All of this is to emphasize two points: (1) It really does take two years or more for a program to get established in the community, and you have to be both patient and persistent in order to make that happen; and (2) you have to keep at the effort of community membership forever, or for the life of the program, whichever comes first.


The program now: It's been 16 years since the adult literacy program in Orange started. It has, since 1985, been part of The Literacy Project, a community based non-profit adult education provider founded by Lindy Whiton and Jim Vaughan in 1984. Currently known as the North Quabbin Adult Education Center, the program serves over 100 learners a year. In addition to reading, writing, and math instruction, learners have been or are involved in original research, classes in computer use and economic literacy, community projects, family literacy, collaboration with several other organizations, community drama projects, a community garden... in short, it has evolved into a true community program, run jointly by learners and staff, thanks largely to its current site director, Pat Larson. It has often been cited as a model for how an adult literacy program can become an integral part of its community. But it wouldn't have happened without relentless effort to make and maintain all those contacts, an effort that will continue as long as the program operates.

Phil Rabinowitz