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Tech changes fuel new Project Read strategies

By Mike Goodkind, Project Read-Menlo Park volunteer

Literacy education at Project Read-Menlo Park is evolving as quickly as the sweeping technology changes in Silicon Valley, says Roberta Roth, Project Read's literacy outreach specialist.

Volunteer tutor Susan Speicher, a retired educator from Atherton, looks up at the "Project Read" banner in the Menlo Park Public Library's tutoring area, shakes her head smiling, and says, "This should really be called 'Project What You Need.'"

Technology skills to complete a job application at an employer's online kiosk, or fluency with an email account to keep in touch with a teen's high school teacher, are as important as the ABCs once considered the end-all of literacy education.

Eight PCs loaded with relevant software, an in-kind donation from the Foundation for the Future and the volunteer support of Menlo Park technology consultant Susan Kayton, are available for registered learners and tutors in the Project Read Computer Lab whenever the main Menlo Park Library is open.

In addition to the one-on-one tutor-student matches the program offers, computer lab volunteers are available at various scheduled times or by appointment to help students find resources, such as GED preparation, and English language or typing lessons. New resources are constantly being added, says lab volunteer Mercy Nuesca, who is applying her recently acquired skills from a master's program in library science, as well as the suggestions of tutors and learners, to find new programs.

Perhaps Project Read's greatest challenge at the moment, Ms. Roth says, is to prepare students for the recently revised GED exam, which unlike previous versions will be administered entirely online and will require keyboarding skills for test takers to complete written exercises.

"But even for those folks who aren't ready for the GED, literacy, keyboard and basic computer skills, including email, are becoming essential," she says. "We've had several students tell us they need to use Craigslist if they want to apply for a job as a nanny. When applicants go to Home Depot, Costco or Safeway to apply for a job, they are pointed toward a computer kiosk to complete the application."

Jessica Bayliss of Menlo Park, education director for Mountain View-based Education Portal, started tutoring in August. So far she has helped her student, Angelica Reyes, keep in touch with her six children's schools, including that of a daughter whose high school expects parents to use email, and with the caregivers for her preschool son with special needs.

But it isn't all about technology. When she first came to the Bay Area from El Salvador more than three decades ago, Margarita Joachin of Menlo Park told herself, "I don't need English." Her brother-in-law interpreted what little English she needed when they worked together as janitors.

But her daughter, Cindy, now 27, encouraged her to go to school. Ms. Joachin wanted to sign up for adult school classes, but "they told me I needed to learn some more first."

Three years ago she found Project Read from a library circular and was matched with Ms. Speicher. The pair usually meets 90 minutes twice weekly, a typical commitment, Ms. Roth says.

Before Ms. Joachin's daughter, a Google employee, married earlier this year, Ms. Speicher helped her student prepare so she could give a speech at the English-language wedding.

First-year tutor Skip Bond, a retired microbiologist, says that the multidimensional program has helped his student, Oscar Galicia, talk more confidently with his plumbing customers. "I reassured Oscar his English conversation is really pretty good." To help Oscar gain fluency, Skip often talks with Oscar about newspaper articles they share on a computer, and they also read and discuss books.

Project Read, which now serves about 90 adult learners, needs more tutors for the more than 20 students now on its waiting list. No experience is necessary, and teaching material and other resources are provided by the program.

The education level of tutors ranges from Ph.D.s to folks who themselves haven't finished high school but have learned skills and now want to give back, Ms. Roth says. For example, Ms. Joachin says a long-term goal is to become a tutor herself.

For information about Project Read's upcoming tutor training, starting Oct. 9, contact Ms. Roth at rlroth@menlopark.org, or call 330-2525. Online or DVD training is also available for prospective tutors who can't make in-person sessions at Menlo Park Library.

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