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Volunteer tutors boost adult literacy in Allegheny County

| Sunday, Aug. 2, 2015, 10:24 p.m.
Helen Poole, 62, of Uptown, works on some fractions problems on the dry erase board Thursday July 30, 2015 at the Greater Pittsburgh Literary Council Downtown.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Helen Poole, 62, of Uptown, works on some fractions problems on the dry erase board Thursday July 30, 2015 at the Greater Pittsburgh Literary Council Downtown.
Jewel Method, an Adult Basic Education volunteer with the Greater Pittsburgh Literary Council, helps Helen Poole, 62 of Uptown, work out some fraction problems on the dry erase board Thursday July 30, 2015 at the center's offices Downtown.
James Knox | Trib Total Media
Jewel Method, an Adult Basic Education volunteer with the Greater Pittsburgh Literary Council, helps Helen Poole, 62 of Uptown, work out some fraction problems on the dry erase board Thursday July 30, 2015 at the center's offices Downtown.

A math lesson is under way Thursday morning in Jewel Method's classroom. As Helen Poole works to solve fraction problems printed on the whiteboard, Deborah Russell tackles problems on a worksheet.

Method, a volunteer tutor with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, has been helping Poole and Russell, both 62, prepare to take the GED tests.

“Working with the students is rewarding,” said Method, a volunteer with the council for about a year. “Adults want to be here, they want to learn, and they look forward to coming to class.”

Despite having more than 400 volunteers who are willing to teach, the center has a waiting list of 120 prospective students hoping to enroll in adult basic education and English-as-a-second-language lessons, said executive director Don Block.

The prospective students have been through orientation but are waiting to be enrolled in a class or paired with a tutor — a process that can take four or five months, Block said.

The GED Testing Service recorded about 4,000 more Pennsylvanians taking the test in 2014 than 2013. Block said demand is usually high, and GPLC has noticed a bump in enrollment in the past month.

“It goes in waves,” he said. “People have certain goals they want to reach, like they want to go to community college, and a start date is coming up.”

There are adult literacy programs statewide, but GPLC, which serves Allegheny County, relies on volunteers more heavily than others, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

The council has about 10 people inquire about classes every day, Block said.

About half of the center's adult students work with volunteer tutors, and the rest enroll in classroom lessons with paid staff, he said.

The time commitment and responsibility intimidate some potential volunteers, Block said. GPLC tutors spend 12 hours in training before meeting with students, and because students prepare to take their GED for an average of about 18 months, the council asks tutors to commit to meeting students four hours a week for six months, he said.

Volunteers are free to set their own schedules, meeting students in libraries, community centers, churches and coffee shops.

“They're so intensely involved with one or two people they get to see the change happen,” he said. “But the progress is slow. That might make some volunteers a little impatient.”

Katie Doyle, an adult basic education and English-as-a-second-language tutor for 10 years, said the satisfaction of helping others keeps her coming back.

“My life has been so enriched because I can read, and the things I know because I read them,” Doyle said. “I cannot imagine how empty my life would be if I couldn't read and take all this in.”

Katherine Schaeffer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7832 or kschaeffer@tribweb.com.

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