Beyond Literacy: Combining nearly 90 years of history into one org

Two prominent adult literacy orgs announced their merger this week, creating the largest adult education agency in the city

Generocity Philly | Apr. 29, 2021 12:42 pm |  By Grace Shallow / CONTRIBUTOR

Access to a college education changed Enrico Crispo’s life about 25 years ago.

“I went to a public high school in a blue-collar town in North Jersey, and I was lucky to get an athletic scholarship to go to a good college and get a good education,” Crispo said. “For me, education opened a lot more doors.”

Crispo now serves as the board president of Beyond Literacy, the product of a merger between two long-standing Philadelphia organizations—the Community Learning Center and the Center for Literacy. He credits the The Nonprofit Repositioning Fund and William Penn Foundation for providing critical support and funding to aid the merger and its strategic planning activities.

Beyond Literacy (BeLit) will focus on expanding opportunities for adults through education and workforce readiness. The new literacy influencer debuted during a virtual spelling bee event on April 28 featuring special guests  like  Gisele Barreto Fetterman, a Brazilian-American activist and the Second Lady of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Councilmember Helen Gym was declared the champion speller of the charity event.

Kimmell Proctor, BeLit CEO and former executive director of CLC, said pooling the organizations’ combined 87 years of experience will maximize the capacity of services that BeLit can offer to Philadelphians of all ages, including historically disenfranchised groups such as immigrants and returning citizens.

“Literacy is the launchpad to sustainable wage jobs, to civic engagement, to improved health outcomes and for social justice,” Proctor said. “As a more holistic and multi-faceted organization, BeLit can increase the impact of adult education as a driver of economic and social mobility.”

Once final court approval of the merger is received, BeLit will implement a multilateral approach with three key initiatives: digital access and literacy, workforce recovery and family literacy.

The organization projects it will reach 2,500 city residents annually with its personalized, small class instruction about basic skills, high school credential preparation, English as a second language and career readiness. It will operate from community-based campuses in North and West Philly, as well as a central location in Center City at Peirce College.

BeLit specifically focuses on empowering adults who may have hit some speed bumps during their K-12 education. Though it serves a specific population, Proctor believes its work benefits all Philadelphians. “In order for children to succeed, the adults around them need to be given the tools to succeed as well,” Proctor said.

Education gaps are a prevalent issue in Philadelphia. According to an interactive mapping tool by the National Center for Education Statistics, 32 percent of Philadelphians lack basic literacy and 49 percent lack basic math skills. These numbers have serious implications; a report by the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board linked low levels of literacy with poverty, poor health and the likelihood of incarceration. The same report noted adult education as a powerful driver of the local economy.

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov John Fetterman said adult education is important for all folks, whether they’re planning on a career in the trades or a secondary education.

“People must understand just how much work it takes and the courage that it takes for adult learners to finish their GED,” he said. Having a high school education equivalency “opens up a whole world of opportunities.”

BeLit doesn’t expect to tackle this issue alone, and Proctor said it wants to foster collaboration with small and large local organizations and employers. It has already established valued partnerships with ComcastPHLConnectEDPhiladelphia Works, Inc and the city’s Office of Children and Families.

Crispo, a senior manager of talent and organizational development at PECO, learned of the city’s adult literacy crisis and CLC’s mission in 2017 through a LEADERSHIP Philadelphia professional development program. PECO sponsored Crispo’s participation in the program, and the energy company will support BeLit as an active partner of its workforce recovery initiative by employing graduated learners. Crispo also served as a board member of CLC prior to becoming BeLit’s board president.

BeLit’s workforce recovery initiative is an illustration of the organization’s mission to not only fulfill students’ high school education equivalency, but also help learners take their first step into professional space.

“We really pride ourselves on providing careers that are family-changing and life-changing, not just life-sustaining jobs,” Crispo added.

Crispo applauded the dedication of Proctor, who joined CLC in December 2019. She expected to see the organization through its long-planned merger with CFL. What she didn’t expect, like the rest of the world, was the COVID-19 pandemic that entirely changed the organization’s operations.

CLC had to adapt to remote teaching and hybrid courses. To ensure students’ education was not disrupted, the organization provided technology, like Google Chromebooks, to those lacking devices, Proctor said. CLC’s student support team — an internal group of case managers who work with learners one-on-one — also helped CLC keep teaching during the pandemic by checking in and addressing other barriers, she added.

BeLit will carry the hybrid courses spurred by the pandemic into the future as a way to broaden access to its services. The digital access arm of BeLit will continue CLC’s focus on combating technology inequity, as well.

Moving forward, Proctor said BeLit aims to go further than being an on-the-ground resource by becoming a prominent advocate for adult education enrichment. The organization wants to converse with elected officials on a local and state level about the allocation of resources and policies that will best serve Philadelphia’s adult learners.

“Our basic quality of life depends on our ability to read, write and comprehend. By investing in adult and family literacy services, we improve multigenerational outcomes and help break the cycle of poverty,” she added.

BeLit unites two, state-funded education nonprofits with decades of experience serving Philadelphia. Proctor’s forecast for BeLit’s impact? Beyond excited.

“As Philly’s largest adult and family literacy nonprofit, BeLit can play an essential role in meeting the needs of adults who lack educational opportunities in a way that takes them from learning to earning,” she said. “I’m energized by our two experienced organizations combining strengths to make literacy a catalyst for economic growth and prosperity.”

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