Finding the words, reducing illiteracy: New Dimension Literacy Council director pushing for more awareness, more locations in 2020

Michael Smith
Students at New Dimension Literacy Council use letters to physically build words on Thursday. The word “bid” was transformed to “abide” to show how vowel placement alters the sound of other vowels.

Now that the holidays are over, men and women of all ages are getting back to their normal routines of work and school. It was no different this week for New Dimension Literacy Council students in the basic adult education class.

On Thursday afternoon, two men sat across from each other at a table with their tutor at the head of the table. All three had 26 blue letters in an arch that spanned the entire alphabet sitting in front of them. Since this was their first regular class back from holidays, they started off their lesson slowly.

“Let’s spell the word ’sip’,” said tutor Brenda Jagger. Her two students then slid individual letters out of the arch to spell the word, sounding out the vowel sound and connecting it with the proper consonants. The brief phonics lesson that followed recapped how vowels interact with each other in most instances.

“Let’s put these up and let’s spell the word ‘mud’,” she continued. The students each picked out more letters from their arch and this back-and-forth lesson continued. Within an hour, the two men were back up to speed, now joined by a third student, and all started to make headway in understanding how certain groupings of letters can represent sounds.

“It’s a very big help. They’re very easy to get along with, and she’s really fun,” said Cody Black, who has been taking the free literacy class for a few months. He earned a high school diploma as a teenager, but the ability to effectively read has eluded him into his adult life.

“I just didn’t comprehend how to read,” he said.

The program is more one-on-one compared to Black’s high school experience, and he said his tutor can take smaller steps when he needs it. “She doesn’t rush into it. If you’re having trouble with something, she’ll break it down,” he said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “literacy is understanding, evaluating, using and engaging with written text to participate in society, and to achieve one's goals and to develop one's knowledge and potential.”

The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education suggests about 32 million Americans are illiterate, but the California-based Literacy Project Foundation estimates up to 45 million Americans cannot read above a fifth-grade level.

New Dimension executive director Mary Finley said about 1 in 5 Oklahomans are illiterate in some form, and her research suggests Ardmore ranks among the top 12 most illiterate areas in Oklahoma. “It’s primarily people who are not reading at the level that they should,” she said. “That just shows me the need that we have for this program,” she said.

The program offers basic adult education and English as a second language (ESL) classes. She said most of her students have jobs, so ESL classes are held early in the morning and three-hour basic adult education classes are held in the afternoon and evening hours. Now in her second year as the executive director of New Dimension, Finley said her position is a dream come true.

“I come from a family where education is so put upon us, that it’s so important,” she said. Aside from many siblings with advanced college degrees, her great aunt, Mentha Varner, was the first black teacher in the Ardmore school system and would later be considered one of the top educators in Oklahoma.

Finley is also a published author and has a stake in reducing illiteracy rates. “I love words,” she laughed. “I love literacy, it’s just an important factor in everybody’s life to just know how to read.”

New Dimension Literacy Council dates back to the 1980s but started in its current form in 2008. Finley said she started working for the group in August 2018 after founder Carolyn Pirtle approached her at church one Sunday to tell her about a job opening.

“The first year was about getting my feet wet and understanding what it would take to keep this going,” she said. “Now I know my own vision for it.”

Today that vision starts with making the public aware of the organization. “I didn’t know what it was, so a lot of other people don’t know,” she said. “That hinders us from serving the people we can serve.” Finley said her plan is to visit with churches, groups out of the libraries, and speak with students at vocational schools this year to make people aware of their free services.

Finley also wants to expand the group’s footprint and again offer services in Love County. She said services were once offered in Marietta but were canceled before she began working there.

New Dimension currently operates out of an Ardmore Public Library auxiliary building and, as a member of the larger Ardmore Literacy Leadership group, recruits potential students from many other social service organizations. “It’s just a matter of me being out in the community, which now being on full time I can do more of,” she said.

Currently, only two tutors and an administrative assistant are on the payroll with Finley. Two other tutors, including a math tutor, are volunteers. All operating costs are covered by grants and private donations.

This month, New Dimension was awarded grants from the Community Foundation of Ardmore and the McCrory Foundation totaling more than $35,000. Finley said the newest grants will help expand her position to full time and add a part time adult basic education tutor and test proctor.

According to Community Foundation of Ardmore president Mary Kate Wilson, $15,268 was granted to New Dimension because of their role in advancing the education levels of area residents. “The New Dimension Literacy Council's work in the area of adult basic education is helping people to improve their level of literacy and qualify for higher-paying positions,” she said in a Friday statement.

Classes offered by New Dimension run from August to May, but students don’t have to necessarily enroll by certain deadlines. “We’re not like the school system,” she said. “We’re constantly recruiting students.”

She said about 15 students usually enroll in the fall, but nearly 30 students will be enrolled by the end of spring. At the end of the year, students who make significant progress with their reading level are invited to take part in a graduation ceremony.

“We are here to serve the community, and I’ll keep saying it: it’s free,” Finley exclaimed.

Black did not hesitate to talk about his experience with New Dimension and knows exactly what he’s working toward. “Trying to get a job, teach myself to read, and maintain [myself] in the community,” he said.