Creating career pathways for adult literacy: A Q&A with Patti Donnelly

September 29, 2015

Patti Donnelly, executive director of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia, speaks with NSC about the need for policymakers to address the current void of career pathways for adult literacy and English language learning.

What brought you to your position as executive director of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia? 

I joined the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia because I was inspired by its grassroots mission and model of teaching adults. LCNV trains volunteers to work directly with adult learners, teaching them how to read, write speak, and understand English. My experience in non-profit management and fund- development in education and performing arts, seemed to be the right fit at the right time, and I was eager to get back into direct service work. The Literacy Council’s mission is so great because it gives adult learners the tools to succeed on their own; it’s very empowering.

What do you feel has been your most meaningful accomplishment as executive director?

I just started my fourteenth year as the executive director, and throughout that time I was able to implement many changes and positive growth at a steady pace. We have really professionalized the organization; I love the Literacy Council’s grass-roots approach and engagement with volunteers, but what we were missing at the time was the business backbone of a strong non-profit. There were a lot of good people doing good work, but I felt we couldn’t simply paddle along without a growth strategy. I wanted to strengthen the organization internally so we could carry out our mission more effectively and efficiently.

As executive director, I have been able to build a solid infrastructure by implementing best business practices, strengthening our board of directors, and bringing a greater focus to our operations. Since I began working at the Literacy Council, we went from a $360,000 budget to a $1.3 million budget. We’re in a very different place now as a result of those efforts and the organization has grown tremendously.

Your Destination Workforce initiative helps the lowest-level learners get the skills local employers need. Tell us about how you came to develop this program.

The Literacy Council took notice of the changing population in the Northern Virginia region, and the adults coming through our doors to learn how to read, write, and speak in English. The Literacy Council’s target population shifted and we are now serving primarily non-native English speakers. Adult English language learners require an instructional approach that is different than native-born speakers, and because 95% of the adults we serve are foreign-born adults, we needed to re-design our programs to better serve them.

There are many career development programs that provide opportunities for adults to train for the workforce, such as GED programs, community college Career Pathways, and vocational schools and apprenticeships, yet there aren’t as many services for adults who are at the beginning English language learning level. LCNV wants to help the adults who are sweeping the floors at Target become cashiers or store managers. Often what is keeping adults in low-skilled jobs is their lack of English language proficiency. They are not linguistically ready for the career pathways programs that currently exist. The Literacy Council is focused on filling that void through Destination Workforce.

Destination Workforce puts English language learning in a workplace context with targeted skills and vocabulary to help adults reach their goals faster. We include 21st century soft skills in the curriculum, such as team work, arriving on time, how to speak to your boss, as well as relevant workplace vocabulary. The model is similar to other career development programs, but for adults with limited English language proficiency. It’s a combination of addressing the workforce market need and staying true to our mission, which is to teach the beginning level English language literacy learner.

What is the Literacy Council’s approach to teaching English language skills to adult learners?

The Literacy Council offers a student-centered approach to teaching, by meeting the students where they are in their skills. Currently, our adult students represent over 90 countries and speak 68 different languages. We teach students who have come to the United States with PhDs from their home country but speak or read little English, and we have non-English speakers who have never held a pencil in their lives. In a typical class of 20, there may not be a dominating nationality or language spoken. LCNV provides small group instruction, using volunteer class-aides and tutors along-side of credentialed instructors to ensure a small teacher-student ratio. The rich diversity compels our students to speak English in the classroom and creates a space where everybody is learning from each other. The teachers work to build a community across cultures, and you can imagine how challenging it is when the adult learners speak so many different languages.

One way to address these challenges is by incorporating real life scenarios in the classroom. A teacher might bring in a fruit basket and go through each piece one by one, or items from a drugstore and help students distinguish between adult cough medicine and children’s. It’s an amazing experience to be in a beginning level English class with adults, to be reminded of how much we take for granted; even more amazing to see their improvement from the beginning of the session to twelve weeks later. The joy of helping adults get these basic skills is immensely rewarding. To witness their increase in confidence and enthusiasm is a pleasure, especially knowing that this is a first step toward empowerment and integration into the community. 

When did you first get involved with NSC, and why?

After the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act came out, there was a lot of information circling about how the legislation will affect adult education and immigrant integration services. The Migration Policy Institute hosted a webinar to address these questions, and I listened to the presentation by NSC Policy Analyst Amanda Bergson-Shilcock. Listening to her presentation, I was thrilled to learn about National Skills Coalition, a policy organization that really understands the population we serve. Amanda discussed how WIOA does not target the people who need the most help, the low-level English speakers. She highlighted NSC’s Missing in Action report, which outlines the gaps and opportunities for immigrants in federal policy initiatives such as the DREAM act and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). I knew right away that I wanted to get engaged with NSC. I got in touch with Amanda and met her in person at the NSC office, and I’ve been tracking NSC’s work ever since.

The work NSC does to promote adult literacy education and particularly the struggles of the low-level English language learners is fabulous. No one is paying attention to this population and they need a voice in this new legislation. The policymakers need to recognize that this segment of workers can create significant economic growth if we promote their education and give them opportunities to succeed. There has to be an on-ramp for the English language learners. The current system and policies does not include English language skills training, so I am thrilled that NSC recognizes this void.

How does your connection to NSC help to inform your work?

National Skills Coalition is helping to drive change at a higher level for the people that I work with at the grass-roots level, and puts the statistics and research behind what the Literacy Council experiences anecdotally. When we write proposals for funding, we can present the facts, research, and statistics because NSC has helped us frame the need on a broader scale. We see the realities and life challenges of the adults struggling to learn English from working directly with them in the classroom. It is through the combination of NSC’s research and LCNV’s real-life experiences that we can make a stronger policy statement to support adult education.