by AARON RILEY
Illiteracy is a problem affecting the entire nation, but it is an incessant challenge for the state of New Jersey especially. According to statistics traced from the National Institute for Literacy documenting the “24 Most Illiterate Cities in the U.S.,” 9 out of the 24 cities were in New Jersey, more than any other state. Along with Essex, Hudson, Union, Passaic, and even Atlantic Counties, it is commonly accepted that the communities of Cumberland County need help with literacy.
The Cumberland County Literacy Institute was created to combat illiteracy through tutoring programs and family literacy workshops for children and adults. “We supply them with books and materials and they meet with volunteer tutors for an hour or two once a week,” said Karen Arenz, literacy coordinator for the college and the director of the 21st Century Learning Community Grant. “We try to answer any questions they have and we give them basic support and occasional testing.” The non-profit organization runs on grant funding and most of its adult literacy programs are associated with libraries, churches, and synagogues.
It is difficult to determine the cause of the literacy problem, and studies conducted to infer whether it stems primarily from learning and developmental disabilities or educational inconpetence are scarce. According to Arenz, “Individuals can sometimes identify where things went wrong but I don’t think there are any statistics to show where the problems start. With literacy nobody talks statistics. They’re hard to come by and they can be unreliable.”
Additionally, the strive for improvement remains difficult for those who attend the workshops. Given the widely accepted idea that the state of affairs seems to be running smoothly despite illiteracy being commonplace only perpetuates deprivation of long run aggregate supply and augments the gap between classes. It is hard enough to attain a job with enough of a salary to support yourself and your family if you are illiterate, but if you manage to, that job would obviously suspend the need for literacy. “Unfortunately the population needs a lot of other services. They need jobs, daycare for their children. Sometimes even the people who need help with literacy the most need to put the issue on the backburner if a good job comes along or if they need to stay home to raise their children. It winds up becoming a lifelong struggle even with the resources available,” stated Arenz.
Ultimately, the most vital goal of the Cumberland County Literacy Institute is the improvement of the families’ and individuals’ education skills. Arenz stated, “I want to help the family work together more. To give parents the skills to help their children with homework and test prep. Even doing things around the house you wouldn’t normally regard as being relevant toward literacy, such as following recipes when cooking. I want parents to realize that by helping their children with their regular education needs they are improving their own reading skills. We’re trying to enlighten families on what they can do together to improve their own collective language skills. That is the basic goal of the family literacy program.” She continues, “As far as the tutoring goes, it’s to help individuals achieve whatever they can. Most volunteer adult literacy programs are focused on the individual’s goal, such as to be able to read the Bible and teach Bible school at their church, get a truck-driving license, or go to college. That’s what the program tries to help them achieve.”