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BC Politics

Literacy Bumbled among Three Ministries: SFU Prof

Cuts to literacy and adult ed programs show a system 'uncoordinated', says scholar.

Katie Hyslop 8 Mar

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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Helping adults gain literacy skills is 'central' to jobs, economy and personal needs, argues SFU prof Smythe. Image of student in library: Shutterstock.

During a review of their finances last year, Douglas College discovered they had 40 per cent more developmental education students (adult basic education, or ABE, English language learners, and adult special education) than the Ministry of Advanced Education funds them for. At the same time, they were in dire need of cutting costs in light of the provincial government's 2012 decision to offer English Language Learning programs tuition-free at the post-secondary level.*

College administration made the difficult decision to cut their ABE programming by 10.5 per cent. That means starting this September there will only be one 100-level literacy or English Upgrading classes of 12 students per semester instead of two or three.*

"These are fairly low literacy students," said Meg Stainsby, the College's dean of language, literature and performing arts, referring to students in the 100 level classes.

Stainsby told The Tyee the decision was partially made because fewer than 17 per cent of the 100 level students will continue into post-secondary courses.

"Because the mandate of the college is largely focused on post-secondary education, and because these are expensive courses to deliver and duplicate services that are available elsewhere," she said, "it felt like a very fiscally responsible way to continue to serve the population that is more in line with the mandate of the college."

Although the College is trying to make arrangements to keep some students already in 100 level classes -- Stainsby says students often repeat the course seven or eight times before passing -- new students must meet the literacy requirements for English Upgrading at the 200-level.

Stainsby says it's cheaper for adult learning centres and community literacy agencies to offer these courses because they don't have to pay faculty salaries the College does. But she doesn't know if any adult education centres in New Westminster even offer the 100 level English literacy course.

"Students can take the equivalent to our 100 level in all the adjoining communities: Burnaby, Surrey, Delta, Richmond, Coquitlam and Vancouver," she said, adding Douglas College is a commuter school that draws students from all over the Lower Mainland.

Ensuring there are no gaps in New Westminster's literacy services is not Stainsby's job. Decoda Literacy Services, the provincial literacy organization, funds 102 literacy outreach coordinators (LOCs) throughout British Columbia to coordinate the literacy services in post-secondary institutions, school districts, employment centres, and other organizations to ensure there are no gaps.

But funding for 55 of those coordinators, mainly located in rural B.C., is in peril. Whereas its predecessor Literacy Now BC received $2.5 million in annual funding from the Ministry of Education, Decoda has only received $1 million annually since it formed in 2011/12. Last year they could supplement the loss, but this year they can't.

New Westminster's LOC will continue to be funded, but Simon Fraser University education professor Suzanne Smythe thinks the LOC and Douglas College literacy cuts are related to an overall fumbling of literacy and ABE services in B.C.*

"The way that adult literacy and basic education is coordinated in B.C. at the moment -- well, let's just say it's not being coordinated, that's the problem," Smythe told The Tyee.

"Access for adults who want to continue to learn after high school and continue to develop their academic and literacy skills is central to job mobility, central to skills development, central to productivity and our economy and central to their own personal social economic needs. These cuts represent a failure to implement a vision that everyone's agreed on."

Volunteer-run program 'haphazard': Wilson

Decoda was created in 2011 from an amalgamation of Literacy Now BC and 2010 Legacies Now, a non-profit organization created to support Vancouver's bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics that later broadened into support for community sports, healthy living, volunteerism, and literacy.

Legacies Now started the first community literacy pilot programs in seven B.C. communities in 2004. Elizabeth Wilson, the current LOC at North Coast Literacy Now, responsible for Prince Rupert, Port Edward, and four small Aboriginal communities, was volunteer coordinator of the Prince Rupert pilot. There was funding for literacy initiatives but not for a coordinator.

"It was a little haphazard, I have to say, because everybody who was involved was involved because they were already doing something in the area of literacy and they already had responsibilities in that area," Wilson told The Tyee by phone.

The program had funding to create a literacy plan for the area, but because it was entirely volunteer-run, it took two years to create the plan.

"In the end what we did was we took about somewhere between $12,000 and $14,000 of the dollars that we were supposed to be using to implement and support programs and we used that to hire somebody to finish that process for us and to work with us to write the plan."

By 2005 the pilot program had expanded into over 100 districts covering 400 communities in B.C. But funding for literacy coordination didn’t come until 2008/09. The amount provided by the Ministry varied, but in 2009/10 it was as high as $2.5 million, and then $2.45 million in 2010/11. In 2010 another pot of money for program implementation for three years was issued from the Ministry, roughly $60,000 per district.

"We could support programs like Books for Babies, Mother Goose, and we had Flying Totes of Books going to the villages. Quite a lot of things like that, that we needed," said Wilson, adding North Coast Literacy Now also coordinates with literacy services provided by organizations as diverse as the Board of Trade, the school district, Northern Health, and early childhood services.

In 2011 Literacy Now BC and 2010 Legacies partnered to become Decoda Literacy Solutions. But funding from the Ministry dropped to $1 million, plus an additional $500,000 for the Raise-A-Reader campaign. An extra $1.5 million was scrounged from the accumulated coffers of Literacy Now and 2010 Legacies last year, but that couldn't be repeated this year.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education told The Tyee by email that the reduction in funds was made because of the tough economic climate in the province. They added Decoda currently receives $2.3 million in total: $1 million from the Ministry of Education, $665,642 from the Ministry of Jobs, Tourism, and Innovation, and $130,000 from the Ministry of Advanced Education.

But Decoda CEO Brenda LeClair told The Tyee the money from Jobs, Tourism and Innovation is for a three year project aimed specifically at family literacy for recently arrived immigrants and refugees. Since October 2012 Decoda has received $76,000 of that funding, $70,000 of which was given to public school districts to provide these programs.

The money from Advanced Education is for training, webinars, and other supports for Community Adult Learning Program (CALP) for community based adult learning programs like the ones Douglas College says can provide literacy programs for less. LeClair says Advanced Education used to give Decoda $250,000 for CALP but dropped it to $130,000 in 2012/2013.

Decoda also receives half a million in funding from the province through Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, specifically for essential skills and literacy in the workforce training. LeClair says none of the funding Decoda receives is discretionary, meaning they can't find money for LOCs elsewhere in the organization.

In January Decoda announced it would have to eliminate funding for 55 LOCs if funding from Education wasn't restored to $2.5 million.

LeClair says she warned government if funding wasn't restored cuts would have to be made. She said she left meetings with government believing funding would be restored.

"They said that we had their full commitment. Did they say 'we'll find you the $2.5 million?' Perhaps not, but I was certainly encouraged to believe that the funding would be there," she said.

LeClair says Decoda has partnered with several outside organizations like the Forest Legacy Foundation and Thompson Creek Mines to fund literacy programming in the communities they work in. But it's harder to find outside funds for coordinators.

"It's easier to raise money for programs because people can see the lives change and they can see the progress that they've made. Coordination is really important, whether it's the provincial organization or the communities, and really government's the only group that would fund that kind of support," she said.

"It's very hard for us to go to business or industry or people who want to invest in literacy if government's not at the table."

If funding isn't restored, Wilson says North Coast Literacy will continue to coordinate literacy services on a volunteer basis. But it will be much tougher to keep programs running and organizations connected without funding.

"What we want to do as a group is continue to meet so that we can share ideas and so that we can continue to know what's going on in our community," she said.

"I know how hard it is for [Decoda] to get money, for anybody to get money: it's really hard nowadays."

'Expect dollars to be there for Decoda': Minster McRae

Education Minister Don McRae met with Decoda last December and again last week to discuss funding. On CBC's On The Island radio show on Monday, he said he hopes to find an additional $1 million for Decoda in end of year funding.

"The year end is coming up at the end of March, and I've been working diligently, and I'm very confident that I'll find the $1m to make sure we do that‬," he told CBC host Gregor Craigie.

"I expect the dollars to be there for Decoda, because I think they do outstanding work in communities large and small across the province.‬‪"

But it's a last minute scramble for funding that doesn't inspire confidence in SFU's professor Smythe. Three government ministries -- Education, Advanced Education, and Jobs, Tourism, and Skills Training -- are responsible for different aspects of ABE and literacy in B.C., and Smythe says there's a lack of coordination and concrete legislation to make sure people aren't falling through the cracks in these services.

"The system itself is uncoordinated and the people who are working within it are all working on their own little piece without looking at the implications of their actions on others," she said.

"We're [one of the] only provinces that doesn't really have a strategic literacy plan and an adult learning plan."

The Ministry of Advanced Education, which is responsible for literacy and ABE in post-secondary institutions like Douglas College, created the Adult Learning Opportunities Action Plan in 2007. Although it contains a vision for ABE that includes goals and strategies, there is no accountability mechanism to ensure the plan is implemented.

The Tyee contacted the Ministry of Advanced Education for comment, but did not hear back by deadline.

Smythe believes the solution is to put literacy and ABE under one ministry which employs several people who understand the complexities of teaching adults, and follows concrete legislation on adult learning.

But the Education spokesperson says literacy falls under more than one age group, and officials from each ministry are in continual contact with one another regarding literacy issues.

Smythe points to these cuts at Decoda, last year's cuts to ABE courses in public school programs for students looking to upgrade their education, and cuts to Douglas College's ABE classes as a failure to adequately plan and coordinate literacy and ABE in the province.

"Every policy document written about education in Canada in the last 10 years, and in B.C., says access to adult literacy and basic education is key to social and economic development for the province," she said.

"There's a lot of people in the 40 plus range who really do need consistent access to programs where they can get the qualifications they need and upgrade their skills to get on with their careers and change their careers."

Otherwise they're going from making pretty good salaries to dishwashing, and that has huge implications for their personal and social lives, as well as for the productivity of the province. We just can't afford to lose people like that."

*Story changed Friday, March 8 at 12:50 p.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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