Knocking Down Doors

Literacy Center West helps dropouts find jobs

By Ranjit Rege

Contributing Writer

The stone walls of Literacy Center West, tucked away in Price Hill, are somewhat deceiving, looking as though they keep people out. But in fact the agency’s mission is to include people in “a community in which citizens improve their lives through education and economic opportunity.”

The agency offers individualized preparation for high-school dropouts who want to take Ohio’s General Educational Development (G.E.D.) test but also provides literacy and job-readiness training, all free of charge. Instead of large classes, Literacy Center West (LCW) uses one-on-one lessons tailored to students’ needs.

To pass a G.E.D. test, a student must score higher than 60 percent of graduating high-school seniors in five subject areas: science, mathematics, social studies, reading and writing. Most employers and colleges recognize the G.E.D. as an equivalent to a high school diploma.

Next Level, an LCW program for people ages 19 to 21 who have acquired their G.E.D. certificates, offers job-readiness training and job placement. The program has been successful in spite of the recession, according to Stephanie Dunlap, assistant director of Literacy Center West.

“There has been no downturn in hiring for our students,” she says.

But the recession has meant “a lot more people coming through,” including many “who didn’t need help in the past,” Dunlap says. Advancement opportunities have been affected by the recession, but the program’s goal is to get a student’s “foot in the door,” she says.

Dunlap says the students “teach me so much” and that the environment is “a lot of fun. We’re always laughing and joking around with each other.”

That doesn’t mean the work is endlessly upbeat, however.

“There are a lot of sad stories, some of which don’t end,” Dunlap says. “There’s only so much we can do. … We can provide a positive atmosphere for three hours a day, but then (some students) return to a negative atmosphere.”

Two recurring issues the center’s students face are homelessness and child care. Some young adults are transients – sleeping on other people’s couches – and roughly 75 percent are parents. Others face more subtle but equally powerful hindrances.

“What do you do when your own family is saying, ‘Why are you trying to be better than us?’ ” Dunlap says.

Another issue the teachers face is convincing some students that the path offered by the center is beneficial, “particularly drug offenders. There’s a lot of money to be made out there, but it’s illegal and very dangerous,” Dunlap says.

Convincing disadvantaged students to take an entry-level job to work up to a higher paying one when it seems employers are turning them away isn’t easy.

“We’re here to show them it isn’t difficult to find work – we’ll knock down the doors for them,” Dunlap says.

Nor does failing the G.E.D. test the first time mean students can’t be helped.

“The students will get worn out before we will,” Dunlap says.

She cites a Camp Washington student who didn’t pass until his fifth try.

“There isn’t really anyone LCW can’t help,” she says.” Well, they just can’t be rich.”

The center serves people who live at or below the poverty level who read at the fourth-grade reading level or above. Those below that level are referred to the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati.

Literacy Center West serves over 400 people a year. The agency is funded by a mix of government contracts, grants, fundraisers and private donations.

Literacy Center West is at 3015 Phillips Ave. and also offers programs at Camp Washington Community School and downtown for people on probation and under court orders to attend. For more information, call 513-244-5062.