Life June 20, 2017

Much More Than the ABCs

Boise’s Learning Lab transforms lives through literacy

Imagine that you are an immigrant to a very foreign land, say Mars. You’ve heard it’s a great place, but the alphabet has 124 different symbols. To learn to read and write will take years, especially since you never learned to read and write in your own language. The Martian culture is confusing, and the natives move and talk so fast you can’t begin to understand. You are overwhelmed and frightened.

Now imagine that you grew up in rural Idaho and dropped out of school in sixth grade because you always had trouble with reading and were discouraged. Years later you find yourself in Boise but can’t find a job because filling out applications is virtually impossible. Homeless and hungry, you survive by stealing. Prospects beyond that are even less promising.

Similar scenarios, though all earth-bound, are common among students at Boise’s nonprofit Learning Lab. Founded in 1991 as a project of the Junior League of Boise, the bustling nonprofit is now supported largely by Idaho Power. From its start teaching adults in a conference room at the downtown Boise Public Library, the Learning Lab rapidly outgrew its bounds and, in 2006, moved into a second, new facility in Garden City. In 2014, classes were added at a second Boise Library location on the west side of town. Then, in 2016 an Outreach program started classes in low-income neighborhood apartments.

With its 25-year track record of teaching literacy skills—now to both adults and children—Boise’s Learning Lab welcomes those for whom reading has always been a problem: refugees from many different countries and those whose education was neglected or unsuccessful. The Lab works with numerous refugee women who were not allowed to go to school in their native countries. Some don’t even know how to hold a pencil or know what an alphabet is.

Boise is officially designated a Welcoming City, defined as a community of refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution from conflicts around the globe. Confirming its reputation as an exceptionally friendly town, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter’s office convened a committee of organizations who coordinate strategies for education, employment, health, housing, social integration and transportation for newcomers and future employees, according to Theresa McLeod, the mayor’s assistant. The Learning Lab is one of those strategies.

Literacy is more than just reading and writing, said the Lab’s Executive Director Ann Heilman. “The definition of literacy has changed. In the Wild West of the 19th century, knowing how to sign an ‘X’ for your name was usually enough to survive. By the 1940s, eighth grade graduation was considered literate. Now, reading and writing must be combined with computer skills. People who can’t use the Internet can’t find jobs, complete applications, or deal with government agencies,” she said.

People at the lowest literacy and numeracy levels have a higher rate of unemployment and earn lower wages than the national average, and low literacy costs the U.S. at least $225 billion each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime, and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment, according to ProLiteracy, a national program which provides content and curriculum to programs like Learning Lab.

Even for very low literacy students, the Learning Lab helps set up email accounts, and teachers send students simple emails to which they must respond. They are often given an assignment to be completed in class, such as telling a story about themselves in English. Those skills are also needed for help with successful parenting, Heilman added. “Schools use the Internet to communicate with parents about their kids’ grades and issues.”

Soon after its successful start with adult classes, the Lab launched a family literacy program to which adults students could bring their children along and learn together. According to ProLiteracy, children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves. These children are more likely to get poor grades, display behavioral problems, have high absentee rates, repeat school years, or drop out. Low literacy is also tied to poverty, substance abuse, unemployment, and incarceration. “It also can lead to depression and social isolation, which makes it even harder for people to seek help,” said Heilman.

The impact of illiteracy or even low literacy extends further into health care issues. While Boise hospitals have interpreters who do a wonderful job being sensitive to language and cultural differences, Heilman said, “imagine a visit to an emergency room if you can’t read and write. You’re given confusing papers to sign. You can’t read aftercare or medication instructions, or know if there are follow-up visits required.” Not understanding numbers can lead to disaster. “If a thermometer says your child is 100.4 degrees and you don’t know the difference between that and 104.0, imagine what could happen.”

Misunderstandings like this not only lead to poor outcomes, they have real effects on the aggregate economy. Studies have shown the economic cost of low health care literacy in the U.S. to be upwards of $230 billion per year.

Clearly, addressing literacy provides practical solutions to a number of problems, many of which are invisible to the literate population. As Heilman put it: “Literacy is a forever change.” Her organization’s mission is quite simple: “To help families discover the joy of learning so all children start kindergarten ready to read, create hope for brighter futures and build a stronger, more self-sufficient, and engaged community for all of us.”   

Joy, hope, and community—with some hard work thrown in. That’s pure Boise.

This article appears in the Issue of Territory Magazine.