Literacy group starts new semester, enrollment rebounding during pandemic

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

New Dimensions Literacy Council has started the latest sessions of classes for over 30 students in Carter and Love counties. With enrollment numbers rebounding after the start of the pandemic, the organization wants to focus on keeping students coming back each semester to continue their pursuits of literacy. 

“They come back because they want to learn more,” said Mary Finley, Executive Director for New Dimensions Literacy Council. “We already have 33 enrolled and we’re just now starting. I’m really glad about that, that means we have recovered from the loss that we took with COVID taking over last year,” she said on Monday. 

Now entering her fourth year at the helm, Finley continues to navigate the nonprofit as it reaches learners in Marietta and Ardmore. Six tutors help deliver three types of classes with in-person and online sessions, and the free 16-week classes include curriculum and material for students. 

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Virginia Peery, a tutor with New DImensions Literacy Council, prepares for a basic adult education session Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.

One of those returning students is Laty Kong, who has been taking English as a Second Language classes in Ardmore since moving to the United States from Cambodia almost four years ago. After taking ESL classes at the Ardmore Public Library for about two years, she now attends ESL classes through New Dimensions.  

“In Cambodia, I learned English about three or four years but just part time,” said Kong. 

While GED preparation classes are among the most popular, Finley said ESL classes and adult basic education classes also provide students a way to reenter education and eventually earn a diploma. Some learners, however, still have to start at the beginning for one reason or another. 

“The majority know how to read a little bit. There are some at higher levels than others, but there are some that come in and they’re at the lowest level,” Finley said.  

“For the most part, most of them know how to read some when they come here,” she said. 

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New Dimensions Literacy Council Executive Director Mary Finley stands next to a sign welcoming back students to a new semester of basic adult education, English as a Second Language and GED prep classes Monday, Sept. 13, 2021.

New Dimension has roots dating back to 1984 but started in its current form in 2008. The organization holds classes in an auxiliary building at the Ardmore Public Library and online. Last year, classes were expanded to include students and a tutor at the Love County Public Library. 

Before the pandemic, Finley had said that expanding the NDLC footprint was a priority for the organization. WIth classes now in two counties, that focus has since shifted to make sure that students return to classes as long as they need to improve their literacy and confidence. 

“Some of them come from backgrounds that aren’t good, not a lot of support or encouragement,” said Finley. “A lot of it has to do with the poverty level. A family’s financial status will always affect how their education goes.” 

The U.S. Department of Education estimated about 43 million Americans were unable to read or write above a third-grade reading level in 2019. According to ProLiteracy, an international literacy advocacy group, up to $200 billion in health care costs in the country each year are linked to low adult literacy skills. 

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Finley said she regularly sees the impact that a person or family’s economic status play a role in literacy. Many adult learners juggle jobs and childcare, so finding the four hours per week to attend NDLC classes can be difficult for some. 

“It’s about a working thing,” Finley said about the difficulties for some to pursue education as an adult. “It is an ongoing issue for literacy in Oklahoma as a whole.” 

Finley said much of her job consists of applying for grant money to keep the nonprofit’s door open. The organization has already received nearly $30,000 from the Oklahoma Department of Libraries, Dollar General Foundation and others to cover material and payroll costs, Finely said two other large grants are relied upon to pay her salary each year. 

While Finley and her staff will consider how to keep students coming back each semester until they reach their education goals, Kong said she expects to continue attending to improve her communication skills. 

“They help me a lot, can make me speaking better and better, and I can communicate with people. I’m so excited and appreciate them helping me,” said Kong.