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Kern Literacy Council Helps Families Learn, Read, and Lead

Kern Literacy Council is dedicated to learners of all ages throughout our community.  The organization’s mission is “to empower individuals to improve the quality of their lives through literacy education.” Its vision is “transforming lives through literacy” and that’s exactly what happens, with the effort of three full-time staffers and scores of volunteers. Helping people learn to read is just one of the services offered that enriches lives in our community.

California State University, Bakersfield (CSUB) students are some of the volunteers; others are in high school, while senior citizens on the other end of the life phase spectrum round out those who choose to selflessly share their time, knowledge, and skills.

According to The Literacy Project statistics, 45 million Americans are considered functionally illiterate, with one in six California residents unable to read at or above a fifth grade reading level.

That lack of preparation often carries over into college for those who do attend; last year, 44% of students entering California state colleges needed remediation in core subjects.

The dropout rate for the 2019-2020 school year in Kern County was 8.2% for the 2019-2020 school year, a statistic just under the average reported by the California Department of Education. “Students who dropped out of high school are more likely to make $30,000 less per year in middle adulthood compared to students from the same socioeconomic status that graduated” reports EducationData.org.

Lack of literacy skills and graduation rates both correlate with lower earning potential,the possibility of experiencing homelessness and higher rates of substance abuse disorders.

Generational poverty and affluence also tie closely with levels of academic attainment. National statistics from the National Institute of Corrections indicate that three out five inmates in the prison systems are also illiterate.

Lack of continuity throughout the pandemic, in addition to access issues, may contribute to lower skill levels for students set to return to in-person classes next year. While the effects of the pandemic are yet to be seen, knowing where tutors are available and how to help students will doubtlessly be more important than ever.

Founded in 1966, Kern Literacy Council is a non-profit organization that has met learners where they are to help them prepare for continued education, job opportunities, citizenship, and the attainment of other important goals. Services are provided without charge. Classes and tutoring sessions are open to the differentiated needs of learners ranging from children to adults.

“Two to two-and-a-half hours per week can really change someone’s life,” said Executive Director Laura Lollar Wolfe, who has served in her role for more than five years. “Families learn better and do better with a culture of literacy in the home.”

Multiple studies over the past 20 years have confirmed that the number of books in a household positively correlates with exposure to books, more minutes per day reading and higher levels of literacy overall for its members, even those not yet old enough to read independently.

Kern County residents can receive free tutoring, with all materials provided, including the opportunity to take home more books to read and share. Teaching parents how to pass along a love of reading to their children is also part of what Kern Literacy Council cultivates in many ways, including through its Family Literacy Program aimed at English Language Learners (ELL).  

Developing literacy skills throughout early childhood is essential for future success. Although Kern Literacy Council sees many adults who are making progress with their own skills, trying to reach mothers with children under age 10 helps curb cyclical learning issues, as women in particular tend to study and read with children after becoming more aware of how and why. Families are given books each month and asked to fill out reading diaries.

“Reading on grade level by third grade goes from learning to read to reading to learn,” said Lollar Wolfe. Frustration for children who do not read well compounds around that time and it’s easy to get left behind if the supposition at school is that a child can already read.

ReadAloud.org, a national literacy advocacy organization, asserts that “reading aloud is the single most important thing you can do to help a child prepare for reading and learning.” The organization confirms that language acquisition, increased vocabulary, better grammar, understanding of phonics, the role of illustration, syntax and plot, reading comprehension and overall success in school are bolstered by being read aloud to from a young age.

Babies, toddlers, and young children benefit from hearing stories and other printed material long before they are able to read, and evidence suggests a child’s brain does not process words from television, a tablet, or other electronic device in the same way. Creating a positive bonding experience through the joy of a shared story during read-aloud sessions is also part of positive socio-emotional connections essential to forming pathways in the brain before age 3, the period of with the fastest neurological development. Just 15 minutes each day is enough to spark interest in the world, create a love of reading and pass along all the inherent benefits of early literacy.

This summer, Books in Motion will return for its fifth season, a partnership between Kern Literacy Council, Kern County Library and Kern Dance Alliance open to the community. Participation is free. Its goal is to inspire children to read through dance by incorporating movement through a choreographed dance they can learn, narration and performance of a children’s book, a related craft, and a copy of the selected title as a gift to round out families’ growing book collections. Presented last year in a virtual format, this year’s events will also likely take place through digital media. Find more information here at the start of the summer: https://www.kernliteracy.org/events.html.

While literacy provides invaluable skills and an undeniable foundation for learners, other services also take place through Kern Literacy Council. Help with numeracy and math skills, GED and citizenship test preparation, and teaching English as a second language are also available.

Two bilingual staff members also speak Spanish to better aid some of the students, parents, and individuals seeking services.

Private sources and non-governmental entities serve as primary funders. Some county funding is allocated to Kern Literacy Council, but overall, less than five percent comes from sources other than private support.

Virtual tutoring sessions have continued throughout the pandemic.


“In order to better serve the whole county, we pivoted to Zoom after initially closing for two months,” said Lollar Wolfe. “It has been 100% Zoom for months now and although we are hoping to resume in-person sessions in August, we may also stick with Zoom because we can reach so many more people.”

Working with the technology has actually proven to be a positive learning experience for some of the volunteers who were less familiar with Zoom and related remote learning tools before the pandemic.

“We had an 80-year-old tutor learn Zoom. He was able to make the shift and he’s already helped one student pass a math GED,” she explained.

Even through COVID, services have seen a consistent rate of participation. Lollar Wolfe estimates that about 125 students per month and 65 tutors participated before the pandemic. Over the past year, that number continues to be at about 75 students per month with 45 tutors despite the change in format and other challenges that could prevent participation. Total logged tutoring hours range from 12,000 to 15,000 per year.

“We want to take away as many barriers as possible so people can persist,” said Lollar Wolfe.

Build Your Own Path, for example, is a program that puts Dress for Success Bakersfield participants in contact with wraparound services so they can benefit from the best of both community resources. A computer lab on-site, for example, allows participants to prepare resumes, tutoring can hone skills, and child care is available during certain in-person programs. They can also network and form community with other participants who may be on a similar path of upward mobility.

Reading, learning, and progress are open to all. The work of Kern Literacy staff and volunteers will continue to improve lives for present and future generations, one book, one individual, one opportunity at a time.

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Tags: Education, Parenting, Special Needs

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