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Tutors in Literacy Outreach pay tribute to their students

Allyn Harvey
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Literacy Outreach, a program that connects foreign nationals with volunteer English tutors, reached out to its participants last weekend with a big party in Basalt’s Lions Park.

The celebration was meant to foster a role reversal of sorts. Instead of students expressing their deep gratitude for teachers, as is the tendency in adult literacy programs, teachers were required to stand up and express their respect and admiration for their students. (A letter about the event is on page A11.)

“I think students are often appreciative of the program but don’t give themselves enough credit,” said Julie Fox-Rubin, director of Literacy Outreach. “They don’t hear enough how amazing they are – 70 percent of them are working parents.

“The party was a chance to let tutors say how amazing they think their students are.”

So last Saturday night, about 35 of the program’s volunteer tutors stepped up onto a makeshift stage and spent a minute or so saying what impressed them about their student.

None of them talked about grammar or spelling or pronunciation, although a number of the tutors remarked on their student’s progress with English and success settling in the Roaring Fork Valley.

But nearly all of them said they were struck by the fact that they signed up to teach English with the idea of getting a student, and instead ended up with a friend. A number of the tutors also said they were getting at least as much out of the lessons as their students.

Literacy Outreach began in Glenwood Springs as Garfield Adult Literacy in the late 1980s or early 1990s, according to Fox-Rubin. In 1995, a satellite office was set up in Basalt. Then six years ago, Garfield Adult Literacy lost its funding, and both programs were on the verge of extinction.

The Basalt Regional Library District board of directors came to the rescue, according to Fox-Rubin, funding a part-time, 10-hour-a-week position to keep the program alive in the midvalley, even as the parent program in Glenwood Springs disappeared.

When Fox-Rubin was hired as director three and a half years ago, the job was funded for 15 hours of work per week. Fox-Rubin eventually began looking for alternative funding sources so she could put more time into the program. She has since turned it into a 30-hour-a-week gig with support from the Schuss Charitable Trust, The Aspen Valley Community Foundation, Aspen Thrift Shop, Aspen Rotary Club and The Basalt Foundation.

“The first year I had about 20 students; we’ve tripled in size since then,” she said.

Students are paired with tutors for a six-month trial period. In most cases, student and teacher form a bond that’s strong enough to continue past that initial tryout period. And a few of the students eventually gain sufficient command of English to become teachers.

Six years ago, Andrea Nokes, a native of Mexico, started working as a student with Basaltine Polly Pollard. Two years ago Nokes became a tutor, and now, like Pollard, is working with multiple students.

“It’s my goal, as soon as makes sense, to turn students into teachers and have that opportunity to be a leader and offer their experience to someone else,” Fox-Rubin said.

She reports that students over the years have hailed from Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, China, Taiwan, Japan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Morocco, Turkey and the Canary Islands. Currently, 85 percent of the students come from Latin America, 14 percent from Asia and one from North Africa.

Only 11 of about 55 students (the number changes as peoples lives change) are men. “Men are hard to place because I don’t have enough male tutors,” Fox-Rubin said.

The program currently has a waiting list of 22 students that is eight months long, but that’s expected to change once a new library with more meeting space is built.

Fox-Rubin said some of the teacher-student duos prefer to meet in their homes, but the majority like to use the single, small meeting room in the Basalt Library, where books and other learning tools are readily available.

“I expect participation and community support to grow if there is room to accommodate more people,” she said.

[Allyn Harvey’s e-mail address is aharvey@aspentimes.com]


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