Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: Today’s story is another in The Literacy Project series, a collaboration of the Albuquerque Journal, KOAT-TV and KKOB News Radio. The stories explore issues and seek potential solutions to New Mexico’s ongoing literacy crisis.
At age 17, and in her junior year at Pojoaque Valley High School, Cristian Olivas was feeling overwhelmed and decided to drop out.
“I was far behind in my credentials for high school graduation and knew I couldn’t catch up with the limited time that I had, so I made the decision to drop out and take a different route,” she said.
Olivas instead enrolled in the adult education program at Northern New Mexico College in Española, encouraged by her mother who was already in the program. Olivas earned her high school equivalency, or HSE, credential, which set her up for a more extended relationship with the college.
“My experience with them has been incredible. They definitely helped me out and answered all my questions and guided me in the right direction in terms of where I wanted to go,” she said.
Among the classes she took was a course in basic computer skills and a college and career-readiness class, which helped her focus on her goal of being computer literate and working in data entry.
Olivas, 22, became so proficient, she was hired by Northern New Mexico College as an intake and data technician for the adult education program, where she processes student intake and admission forms and enters other data.
Olivas said she intends to continue her own education and eventually get a college degree.
“I definitely want my experience to count and I want to encourage others who are basically afraid to get their credentials because of the stigma associated with people who dropped out of high school,” Olivas said. “I just want them to know that they can succeed and they have no limitations.”
And there is no shortage of adult education programs that lead to a high school equivalency credential.
The New Mexico Higher Education Department funds adult education under the larger umbrellas of the Adult Education and Family Literacy Program, and the New Mexico Adult Literacy Program. Both of the similarly named programs are primarily made available through university and college campuses and non-profits around the state.
They are both free and intended to “strengthen core literacy skills,” which go far beyond learning to read, said Amber Gallup Rodriguez, the department’s adult education director.
There are, however, important distinctions.
All around NM
The Adult Education and Family Literacy Program is actually 26 individual programs offered by different service providers. They are funded by a combination of $6.5 million from the state and $5 million from the federal government under the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, These AEFLA-funded courses teach literacy skills to all adult learners who enter anywhere on the literacy spectrum through the 12th grade level, and help students get their high school equivalency certification.
Another main focus is providing workplace readiness skills to help people participate in the workforce, Gallup Rodriguez said. The AEFLA-funded programs track when students leave, student attainment of work and attainment of workforce credentials, and their median earnings after they leave.
“When we talk about literacy, we’re talking about not only the ability to read and write, but also how people can use those skills in the 21st century,” she said. “We know that many more jobs in the future are going to require a more highly educated workforce, and the largest gaps in New Mexico are in middle skill jobs, those that require more than a high school diploma, but maybe less than a four-year post secondary degree. “In the Adult Education Division, we see that we have a really important role in supporting adult learners to prepare for those more family sustaining, high demand careers,” Gallup Rodriguez said.
In the last pre-pandemic year for which they had a full year of data, she said, programs under Adult Education and Family Literacy served:
• 2,286 people at the basic literacy level, which covers those with a reading ability up to grade level 3.9
• 3,476 people at the basic education level, which is fourth grade through 8.9 grade equivalency.
• 3,528 people who are learning English as a second language.
Meanwhile, the New Mexico Adult Literacy Program is available at 14 locations around the state and is funded with $680,000 from the state. These courses are primarily taught via one-on-one tutoring and are geared for adults who test at a sixth grade equivalency level or below.
“These individuals have emerging levels of literacy and are in courses that are appropriate to more foundational skill development,” Gallup Rodriguez said.
Many of them have goals other than jobs or college and may be motivated “by a desire to support their children in their schools and being able to help them with their homework, or being able to read a newspaper or become a U.S. citizen,” she said.
The New Mexico Adult Literacy Program is relatively new and there is still little data available to track success, in addition to complications caused by a pandemic-related decline in attendance, she said.
Adult education programs represent “a bargain for the state,” Gallup Rodriguez said. The state expenditure for an adult education student averages about $655 per year; and that student, after receiving a high school equivalency credential, can see an increase in earnings that averages $9,620 per year and a 53% income increase over 10 years, she said.
“That not only increases a family’s income, but also brings more money into the community. We are serving adult students at a low cost per head, but a very high return on investment in terms of the number who enter the workforce and generate wages and those who transition to college,” she said.
There are nearly 232,000 New Mexicans age 18 and older who lack a high school diploma or certification, according to 2019 U.S. Census data.
New Mexico’s organizations that promote literacy say that people with higher literacy levels are:
• Less likely to drop out of high school and more likely to go to college;
• More likely to have better health, fewer teen pregnancies, fewer addictions;
• Less likely to become involved with the criminal justice system;
• More likely to have children who are also healthier and achieve higher literacy levels.
Further, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports a 43% reduction in recidivism rates among former inmates nationwide who participated in adult education programs while in prison.
Because much of New Mexico is rural, there are “a lot of systemic inequities that lead to literacy-related challenges,” Gallup Rodriguez said. But rather than focus on that, “it’s important to look at the systemic inequities that undergird these things and think about how we might make access to literacy education more equitable.”
Among the inequities that need to be resolved is making sure people in rural areas “have access to these programs and that the programs are strong, and that we address the digital divide, particularly in rural parts of the state where many people lack consistent access to the internet or computer technology,” she said.
“We’re also working to develop a centralized professional development system, so teachers and administrators can further ensure the quality of services.”
The bottom line is “we can address the inequities through literacy education,” she said.