Adult literacy program's move swells enrollment More visible city site brings sharp increase

March 23, 1997|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

Teacher Steve Butz had a delightful problem the first day of school: There weren't enough chairs.

He had 19 adult students, four more than expected for his second class of the day, a 10: 40 a.m. remedial reading and writing session. Before class could begin, he had to run to the computer lab to grab extra seats.

Such are the problems of the COIL Learning Bank, Baltimore's largest private adult literacy program, which has seen demand for its services boom since moving three weeks ago from two nondescript rowhouses at 1223 W. Baltimore St. to new quarters across the road at 1200 W. Baltimore St. More than 200 people have enrolled for the current eight-week session, up sharply from the 150 students of a year ago.

"We're so much more visible here that a lot of people are finding us who maybe didn't know we were here before," said Sister Mary Judith Schmelz, director of the Learning Bank.

Welfare reform rivals the higher visibility as a reason for the bumper crop of students, she said. Several Learning Bank students said they are seeking to improve their chances of leaving the welfare rolls.

While focused on the program's literacy efforts, some people call the Learning Bank's sleek new headquarters a welcome respite from the blight that mars the West Baltimore Street commercial strip. "Clearly it puts a new patina on the neighborhood," said City Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III.

Henson sees the location in the Poppleton Empowerment Zone as key to preparing the hundreds of functionally illiterate adults there for employers who might be attracted to the area for the federally designated zone's tax breaks.

The Learning Bank offers remedial instruction, general equivalency diploma classes and workplace preparation. The typical student reads at a fourth-grade level. "The most significant thing we do is to help people get a sense of self-respect and self-esteem and self-confidence -- something they never had before," Schmelz, said.

The program began 14 years ago with a $12,000 budget, 25 students and Schmelz as the lone teacher.

It is a branch of Communities Organized to Improve Life (COIL), a Southwest Baltimore umbrella group that offers a variety of services.

The Learning Bank's current $400,000-plus budget is expected to serve 800 students in the next year or so. But that's a small portion of the estimated 200,000 functionally illiterate adults in the city.

Funds are provided by government grants and charities, Schmelz said.

Psychological uplift

Several Learning Bank students interviewed praised the program and said the new environs help lift them psychologically.

"To see this program transform from those little buildings over there to this huge building makes me feel like I can grow more, too," said Rachel Brown, 28.

Last week, Brown chatted about her progress in the program with fellow student Sheila Marable, 32.

Both women enrolled in the program to help free themselves from years of dependency on welfare. After Brown began classes in October, her Learning Bank counselor told her about job openings for janitors at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. She applied, was hired and now attends morning classes.

The classes start at 9, followed by a 90-minute tutoring session. She then takes a bus to the Baltimore Arena, where another bus whisks her to work for the 3-p.m.-to-11-p.m. shift.

Her busy schedule leaves little time for her 11-year-old son, but it gives him an appreciation for the work ethic, she said: "I know I'm setting a good example for him."

Her goal is to take the test for the high school equivalency later this year and enroll in college. She wants to become a physical therapist.

'Have to get off welfare'

Marable, a mother of four school-age children, attends morning classes and looks for work in the afternoons. "I have to get off welfare," she said. "I don't want my kids to grow up seeing me as this person who never made anything of herself."

Brown, who is dyslexic and dropped out of Edmondson High School in her senior year after having a baby, is typical of many Learning Bank students who did not receive proper instruction while they were in school to compensate for learning disabilities, said Carol Osgood, program coordinator.

No-nonsense school

Inside, the three-story, 27,000-square-feet Learning Bank building has a light, airy feel, not unlike a suburban shopping mall, with a large open stairway bathed in sunlight.

In teacher Butz's classroom, there's a no-nonsense approach. On the first day of class, he spent about 10 minutes discussing the program's strict penalties for absences, missed homework assignments and general expectations of students. After four absences, students have to leave a class until the next eight-week session begins.

On the first day, many students looked uncomfortable and embarrassed, wrestling with such things as subject-verb agreement and writing a declarative sentence -- tasks most of them had failed to master years ago.

"This is a fun class," Butz assured them.

In need of funding

With the details of moving behind her, Schmelz is focused on raising the remaining $250,000 of a $3.5 million capital campaign, which was originally announced two years ago. Some $2.5 million went for renovating the building and related costs. The rest provided an endowment.

The Learning Bank received $850,000 in state bonds and $200,000 in city bonds for the effort. Other major local contributors include a $625,000 challenge grant from the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation, $250,000 from the Abell Foundation and $200,000 from the France and Merrick Foundation.

"People on the street stop me and compliment me on the building," Schmelz said.

"I hope it encourages other people to work on their buildings and bring the neighborhood up."

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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