New Facility Aims to Boost Literacy Rates

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 By Ellyn Ruhlmann, PR Coordinator, Waukegan Public Library

Marilu Estrada thinks about a time when she no longer works third shift, part of the clean-up crew at a factory. She wants to spend more time with her three kids, the youngest of whom is only a few months old. But without a high school diploma, Estrada’s job options are—not surprisingly—slim. Last summer, the Waukegan mom decided to enroll in the free Family Literacy program offered through the Waukegan Public Library and its literacy partners. 

“I want to go for a diploma, so I can try for a better job,” says Estrada, who attends classes with her children twice a week. “My daughter Thelma was really shy at first, but now she likes to come learn and play with the other children.” While Estrada practices her math, reading and writing in the adult classroom, her children work with early learning specialists in the children’s classroom to develop pre-literacy skills, like letter recognition and rhyming. Then, the family reunites for group crafts and reading time.

In January, Estrada and another Family Literacy student, Maria Abarca, helped cut the ribbon on a new 3,200 square-foot Literacy Suite, now open at the Waukegan Public Library. The Literacy Suite offers free one-on-one tutoring for adults wanting to improve basic reading or writing skills, plus free group classes, including Adult Basic Education, Family Literacy, and computer classes in Spanish and English. 

Students like Estrada, who wish to pursue a General Education Diploma (GED), attend classes at the library until they can demonstrate a ninth-grade proficiency in reading and math. Then, they’re eligible to continue coursework—still free of charge—at the College of Lake County (CLC), which administers the GED test and awards the diplomas. 

For the last quarter-century, the library has partnered with CLC and Literacy Volunteers of Lake County to provide literacy services at various off-site facilities. Last fall, the library decided to move the program in house and expand its offerings in response to new studies that show Lake County literacy rates continue to decline.

“The face of the family has changed,” said Michele Vaughn, Associate Dean of Community Education at CLC. “We have more single parents than traditional parents, and with the condition of the economy—no jobs!—a lot of our students are lacking resources. I believe the Family Literacy program is unique because it equips, empowers and motivates the entire family.” Because poverty and literacy rates are so closely linked, a facility like the Literacy Suite may offer a much-needed salve for this community, where 17 percent of adults and 27 percent of children fall below the federal poverty guideline.

Many prominent city and public officials attended the opening, including Waukegan Mayor Robert Sabonjian, who personally committed to “help with the reading effort,” along with Library Board President Bill Anderson, Mike Mattson, president of the Literacy Volunteers of Lake County, and Torrence Hinton, Operation Manager of North Shore Gas, a major literacy supporter. North Shore Gas helped fund the library’s Early Learning Center, and recently donated $20,000 to build the new Literacy Suite.

“The opening of this Suite provides future hope for many residents and their families,” said Hinton. “… Hope for more and better job opportunities, hope for more and better education opportunities, and the opportunity to lay the foundation for generations to come.”

For more information on the Literacy Suite and its services, call Barbara Babb, Literacy Program Manager, at (847) 623-2041, ext. 222.