For Pat Sullivan, a retired post-secondary vocational teacher, the work he does now comes naturally – tutoring students studying for a high school equivalency exam.
“I’m usually the math guy,” he said. “A lot of people who didn’t finish high school were intimidated by math when they went through it. Once you get out of school, you get rusty.”
The Cecil Township resident has been a volunteer classroom aide for the Literacy Council of Southwestern Pennsylvania for nearly three years, helping students study for the General Education Development (GED) exam. The Literacy Council provides volunteer aides to Intermediate Unit 1, which provides the free class, the paid teacher and curriculum at Penn Commercial’s business and technical school in Washington.
Representatives from both the Literacy Council and the IU1 have said they need more people like Sullivan – volunteers willing to work one on one with students. Sullivan is one of only two classroom aides in Washington County, while Greene and Fayette counties don’t have any classroom aides.
“There’s a remarkable need,” Sullivan said. “You don’t have to be a teacher to be a classroom aide. Anyone who comes in can probably help the students here. A lot of it is helping them build confidence because a big part of this is relearning how to take a test.”
According to Rachel Zilcosky, IU1’s adult basic literacy education coordinator, while the IU1 provides state-funded classes and teachers, the volunteer aides are a vital asset to the program. She said especially in areas like math, many students are at different levels, with some requiring more one-on-one tutoring.
Zilcosky said the need for classroom aides is due to growing class sizes. She said the dropout rate in this region has remained “consistent to what we’ve had in the past,” so it’s difficult to say exactly why the classes are growing.
“People have found that if they want to go beyond an entry-level position, they’re going to need their high school equivalency,” she said. “There are employers willing to take people without a high school diploma, but there also are employers who absolutely want a higher level of education. And you can’t get into a post-secondary program without that.”
Kris Drach, board president of the Literacy Council, said national trends show a “vast tightening of education standards” across several career fields.
“We’re heading in a direction where having a post-secondary education will be the standard,” she said. “Right now, there’s a high school baseline. The competition is simply there that employers can ask for high school diplomas and get them.”
The typical age range for the GED preparation classes are 18 to 45, but this year, Zilcosky said, their youngest student was 17, and their oldest was 65. She said people want the class for all different reasons, too, such as job applications, promotions or prerequisites. She said people also use the classes to “brush up” in subject areas – science, social studies, language arts, and math – before entering a post-secondary program.
Ashley Washabaugh of Washington said for a few months, she’s been attending the class at Penn Commercial taught by Jill Casey with IU1. Washabaugh wants to get her GED so she can go back to school for aesthetics, skin care and cosmetology.
“I want to have an actual career – something I can be licensed in,” she said. “My teachers have helped me a lot.”
Sullivan’s job as a classroom aide is to help her reach that goal. It’s rewarding work, he said.
“A lot of people come in and they’re shaking in their boots,” he said. “The look on their face when they pass the exam, you can see in their face the weight lifted from them. You just see the smiles.”
Drach said that while calling for more volunteers, the Literacy Council is also looking for more tutors for its English as a second language program in Washington and Fayette counties. She said between the high school equivalency and the ESL programs, they have about 50 volunteers and serve about 200 students a year.
Since the ESL Program started almost seven years ago, the Literacy Council has helped teach English to people from 53 different countries, Drach said.
“We have exponentially grown over the past seven years,” she said. “I do attribute most of that growth to the economic growth of our region.”
The ESL program is almost completely done through volunteer tutors, who have to have a college degree and complete training to be an ESL tutor, according to Brandi Miller, executive director of the Literacy Council. Miller said most of their tutors are bilingual. The classes are free to students, and the IU1 provides tests and one teacher a week.
The ESL program functions out of Fairhill Manor Church on Montgomery Avenue in Washington, where the Literacy Council rents space. Judy Kosmos, who’s from Taiwan, has been taking the ESL class for years.
“When I first started, I did not know how to write a full sentence,” she said. “(Drach) worked with me so hard.”
Jaeyeon Jeong, from South Korea, and Debra Dutra, from Brazil, said the class is an opportunity to learn about American social etiquette and culture in a comfortable environment in order to improve skills for employment and post-secondary education.
“We learn also American culture, and it is so different from our own,” Dutra said.
Drach said they only have two volunteer ESL tutors in Fayette County, and they need more.
“It would only take one or two special people to really help them over there,” she said.
For information on ESL or GED preparation classes, including days, times and locations across Greene, Washington and Fayette counties, visit the IU1 website at www.iu1.org/services. To become a volunteer with the Literacy Council, contact their office at 724-228-6188.