The Greater Hartford Literacy Council, one of the region's primary supporters for literacy services, may be forced to shut its doors June 30 because of lack of funding from the city and the Hartford school system.
The literacy council, established in 2001, has worked with nonprofit organizations, government agencies, businesses, educators and students to coordinate, support and advocate for literacy services. Approximately 64 percent, or nearly $250,000, of the literacy council's funding has come from the city and the Hartford Board of Education to pay for the salaries and benefits of four employees. The rest of the council's budget comes from private foundations, members and individuals.
The city's portion of the council's funding had been $60,000, plus benefits for three employees, and the schools have paid the council $72,000 for the executive director's salary and covered his benefits. But Mayor Eddie A. Perez's recommended budget for 2008-09 and the schools' recommended budget under Superintendent Steven J. Adamowski do not include money for the literacy council.
"The city feels we haven't seen sufficient results over the seven years to continue the investment," said Sarah Barr, Perez's communications director. Barr did not elaborate.
Nancy R. Benben, the school district's interim chief of communications, said the school district has revamped its budget, trying to shift resources away from its administrative offices and into the classroom.
"Ultimately, we want the same thing. We both want literacy to improve," Benben said. "Our overall strategy is to push much more money into the classrooms."
But losing money from the city and schools would be a "fatal blow" to the literacy council, according to Carl Guerriere, the council's executive director.
"It means we'll just have to close our doors," Guerriere said. He said that the mayor's office has done little to support his organization, beyond offering the funding. He flatly disagreed with Barr's assessment of his group's success, saying their record "clearly shows" their accomplishments.
One major initiative supported by the council has helped hundreds of low-income families annually get books for their children to read, Guerriere said.
Twenty-four programs serving low-income children and families in Hartford and surrounding towns received books this month, according to the council. Through these programs and other book distributions and grants, Hartford-area families, community-based organizations, and schools received 89,000 books and $40,000 in book grants since 2001 with more than 44,000 children's books given to more than 40 programs this year alone.
Studies show that creating a "literacy-rich environment" in the home is essential to developing literacy skills, and that as many as 61 percent of low-income families have no books at all in their homes for their children, according to the council's website.
Kathleen M. Airoldi, a literacy coach at Hartford's Simpson-Waverly Elementary School, was one of nearly 50 people to offer public support to the organization. "This is the most valuable way to bring up reading scores among our children," Airoldi said. "If they can't afford books at home, we need to provide them."
"I was also a 14-year varsity coach at Bulkeley High School," Airoldi said. "If runners did not practice, they couldn't run; it is the same with reading. If our children can't practice, due to lack of books at home — and at school — they will not become fluent readers."
In addition to providing books, Guerriere said the council linked up organizations that provide literacy services with funding sources; it has developed training programs to teach service providers, such as legal aides, behavioral health organizations and youth service workers, to better communicate and serve illiterate clients; and it has brokered partnerships between community organizations that may not usually work together.
According to the literacy council, about 41 percent of Hartford's population functions at the lowest literacy levels, meaning individuals would have problems filling out a job application or following the screen of a bank ATM.
The Hartford city council and Perez will hold a public hearing on Perez's proposed budget tonight at Bulkeley High School. The literacy council plans to speak at the hearing, Guerriere said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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