Education starts students up ladder of success

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All of us are teachers, but not all of us get paid to teach.

If you are a parent, neighbor or boss, someone has likely benefited from your wisdom and your instruction.

If you are reading this article, you are one of the fortunate who had the privilege of learning to read.

Horace Mann, often referred to as the father of American education, referred to education as the great equalizer. Mann’s idea was that the opportunity to attend school should be equally available for everyone, rich and poor alike.

I believe the natural extension of this thought is that it is incumbent upon all of us to recognize our community and our communities’ children are in large part our shared responsibility. Education is the heart of social unity and economic stability and provides the opportunity to transcend the debilitating effects of generational poverty.

The data would indicate the skills gap across the nation, in our state, and even in our town is growing steadily.

A recent survey done by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies was released October 2013. The PIAAC survey studies adults age 16-65 in 23 countries.

The purpose of the study is to provide a global perspective of the cognitive and 21st century workplace skills of working age adults. Results reveal that while all other countries are increasing citizens’ literacy levels and increasing numbers of citizens completing college, the U.S. literacy attainment levels remain unchanged from a decade ago, and numeracy skills continue to decline.

There are currently 36 million adults living in the United States with skills at or below the seventh-grade level. This means 1 out of every 5 adults is challenged to read a newspaper, let alone help children do their homework.

Two-thirds of these adults are working but do not have the skills to advance in their jobs or compete for jobs that require high levels of reading, writing, math or computer proficiency.

The 2010 census data reveals this is a local issue too. Thirty-two percent of Washington residents have less than a high school equivalency, and 25 percent have some college, but no degree.

It is estimated that 67 percent of Washington’s jobs will require postsecondary education by 2018. Adults who have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems, and using technology will continue to find themselves falling further behind.

As families become poorer so do their children, and consequently our community. Studies show that while half of all people from high-income families have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 25, just 1 in 10 people from low-income families do so.

As the dean of transitional studies at Walla Walla Community College, I have the privilege of seeing education change lives and transform communities. Adult education programs at WWCC prepare adults for college and for careers.

English language learners in low-level ESL classes use computers instead of textbooks, so a greater number of adults are increasing their computer literacy skills and language skills simultaneously, accelerating pathways to self-sufficiency.

Integrated Basic Education Skills Training programs enroll students directly into occupational programs where they have support of faculty teaching teams, streamlining their path to employment.

Twenty-first century workplace skills are taught within the curriculum to better equip low-income adults with the skills employers demand.

Teamwork is highly valued in our high-performance work environments. Students work in learning communities to develop team skills as they complete projects and assignments. Programs are designed to keep students in school by placing key people along the pathway who can assist with navigating the complex systems, which make college (and employment) accessible.

Putting tens of thousands of adults on the path to middle-class wages won’t be easy, but as one who has seen it happen, it is possible. Increasing language skills and acquiring GED or high school equivalency continue to be the first step in the pathway.

We are grateful to partners who invest in local talent. English as a Second Language and Adult Basic Education classes are held on campus at WWCC, as well as at Tyson Fine Foods, WorkSource Walla Walla, Garrison Middle School and Broetje Orchards. Blue Mountain Action Council actively supports students in and out of the classroom.

Additionally, in Walla Walla we are very fortunate to have employers who partner with us, share their insights with our students and host our students in “job shadow” experiences and internships.

I could use many student stories to illustrate my point, but I will use two.

Maria Perez, a recent graduate: “With my GED I was able to get a promotion in my job, I am now a supervisor. I have to use math quite a bit on the job and my GED equipped me to use this skill. In the future I want to continue learning and the GED has given me the confidence to accomplish my goals.”

Equally as inspiring, Carmelita Martinez states: “I now know and understand fractions because of (what I learned earning) my GED. When my son’s teacher said he needed help learning his fractions, I was confident that I could be the one to help.”

In fall 2013, 558 individuals took tests needed to earn a GED certificate. This number, compared to 213 GED takers in 2012, indicates the strong desire of those in our community, like Maria and Carmelita, seeking pathways to a better future for themselves and for their families.

An educated and skilled community pays dividends for employers, individual families and the economy.

As an educator, I believe the vision of education for everyone, which began with individuals like Horace Mann, still rings true today. Education is and will always be a wellspring of freedom and a ladder of opportunity for millions.

Darlene Snider is dean of transitional studies at Walla Walla Community College.

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