Enrollment at Allentown’s Literacy Center swells during pandemic

Written by on June 16, 2021

Enrollment at Allentown’s Literacy Center swells during pandemic

By Ben Stemrich

June 16, 2021

Graduation at the Literacy Center. Photo | Courtesy of the Literacy Center/ Marco Calderon Photography.

The Literacy Center in Allentown had to adapt to the pandemic like everyone else but it wasn’t because of a lack of demand. 

Listen to the story.

Adults learn to read, write, and speak English at the Literacy Center. Classes used to be held in a tall gold brick building at 1132 Hamilton St., Allentown, but the pandemic forced classes online

“We literally went from in the building to online overnight,” says Jen Doyle, executive director. 

Doyle says at the beginning of the transition they only lost 5% of students. Then enrollment skyrocketed. It went from around 500 students a year to more than 1,600 students during the pandemic.

Here’s Kelly Gallagher with the center

“During the pandemic, we served more students than we ever have before in the history of the Literacy Center. We’ve been around for over 40 years,” says Kelly Gallagher, the center’s Workforce Development and Support Services manager. 

Gallagher says the type of students they serve changed, too. It shifted from a younger demographic to older, mid-career job-seekers. Gallagher says the convenience of online courses drove increased enrollment.

“It might just not work with traffic or, you know, child-care schedules, but they can get home and log in on Zoom by 6 o’clock,” she says. 

The biggest hurdle in online learning is technology. Not just knowing it, but having it. 

Kristen Walsh, director of development with the center, talks about one student who comes to mind.

“This student who didn’t have Internet in their home and they would drive every day to their friend’s house, and it’s COVID, so they couldn’t go inside so they would sit in their car outside and use their friend’s wi-fi on their phone and attend class,” Walsh says. 

And, Kelly Gallagher says, the center’s success was due to the dedicated volunteers and instructors.

“We tried to put in as many supports as possible including tutoring, extra time to help students work, bringing in additional resources that we hadn’t had to use before,” Gallagher says. 

But The Literacy Center had been helping people long before the pandemic. Students speaking Spanish, French, German, Arabic and other languages come to the center.  Ranai Tonnous is from Syria, where she was a civil engineer. She says when she came to the United States in 2016 she had to start all over. 

“I lost all my skills in engineering, computer, you know. The war started in Syria in 2011. I lost my office, I lost my home so I didn’t touch any computer for 10 years,” Tonnous says. 

Tonnous and her three children moved to Allentown in 2017. She began classes in 2018. 

“They make you proud of yourself, proud of them every time. They listen to you all the time,” she says. 

Tonnous has since graduated from multiple training courses at the Literacy Center and is currently taking English as a second language. She works at a department store and is starting to look for a job in banking. 

Classes at the Literacy Center will resume in person in the fall semester It will also continue to offer online courses.

The Literacy Center will hold an online graduation ceremony for students on Thursday June 17.

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