Secretary White on Youth, Technology, and Literacy
Secretary of State Jesse White has displayed a lifelong concern for children, and has spent years shaping young people, either as a teacher or through his Jesse White Tumbling Team. He brought that same concern to his role as State Librarian. His Project Next Generation program, founded in 2000, was designed to help at-risk youth learn the tools for success in life. Project Next Generation combined “education, motivation, technology, and friendship” to improve life skills and technological ability of junior high-age children. Noting, “today’s 13-year-olds will work in jobs that don’t exist now,” White believed that Project Next Generation demonstrated “technology [is a] necessary means of communication as well as a vital tool in their search for employment.” Students in grades six through nine were targeted to be involved in a blend of technological experiences involving the Internet, scanners, digital cameras, and mentoring on life skills.1010
Nine public libraries, including Virden, Bloomington, Bethany, Carlinville, Quincy, Elmwood Park, Rockford, and the Kelly and Portage-Cragin branches of the Chicago Public Library, were identified as the project pilot sites. A statewide curriculum was intended for consistency, although the program was tailored toward individuals. Each site had 10-12 students, with one mentor for every three to four students. The General Assembly appropriated $250,000 for fiscal year 2001 for the initiative. In visiting the sites later that year, White noted that his experiences with the Jesse White Tumbling Team had shown him:
“Kids need mentors – caring adults who will teach and encourage them and provide a positive influence. That’s what Project Next Generation is all about – today’s heroes shaping tomorrow’s leaders.”1011
The program proved both popular and successful. By late 2000, nine more sites had been added, and three years later, the number of sites was 23. Eventually, Secretary White began hosting participants in a picnic outing in Springfield the day before the start of the Illinois State Fair. Project Next Generation also became a highlight of the State Library booth at the State Fair. That same year, the State Library again joined other state agencies in the fair’s “Passport to Reading,” which allowed children ages 10 and under to pick up stamps on “passports” at the library’s booth and other sites on the fairgrounds. The passports could then be redeemed for free books. Nearly 14,000 books were given away in this venture.1012
Secretary White and the State Library remain deeply committed to literacy, and an enviable record has been carved as Illinois literacy programs have reached thousands of Illinoisans and had a positive and long-lasting impact on their lives. In the early 2000s, the literacy program at the State Library was consolidated to better serve the needs of illiterate state residents. Today, the Secretary of State administers two major literacy grant programs. One is the Adult Literacy Grant Program, which has three components: the Adult Volunteer Literacy Tutoring Project, the Family Literacy Project, and the Workplace Skills Enhancement Project. The Penny Severns Summer Family Literacy Grant Program, created in 1999 in honor of the late state Senator Penny Severns of Decatur, offers instruction to improve the basic skills of both parents and children during the summer months when traditional educational programs are not in session. An annual appropriation of $250,000 is given to that program.1013
Usage of the literacy programs has remained heavy. In fiscal year 2010, a total of 83 funded programs under the Adult Volunteer Literacy Tutoring Project served a total of 21,838 students. A total of 8,540 volunteers, mostly female, participated as well. Volunteers spent an average of 13 hours in pre-service training and three hours in service training. In addition, 2,397 students were being served in 34 correctional facilities. In the 37 programs of the Workplace Skills Enhancement Project, 1,296 employees were assessed or instructed, with an average age of 40 and the last grade completed of ninth. In the Family Literacy Project, 1,455 adults were served, along with 1,875 children. Many adult participants either spoke no English or spoke English as a second language. Many participants also did not advance past the eighth or ninth grade. The State Library Literacy Program awards grants annually to more than 200 literacy programs statewide.1014
In the quarter-century since their inception, thousands of Illinoisans have seen the quality of their lives improve thanks to the successful literacy programs. Their stories are testament to the legacy that the State Library has made to Illinois literacy.
Parkland College, Champaign – A 54-year-old farmer who could not recite the alphabet or write his address was matched with a retired teacher at Parkland College’s Project READ program. He now recognizes the numbers and letters on highway signs and does phonics homework between his days in the field, working a part-time factory job and maintaining a large family house. Another woman in her 60s, who put all her children through college, now works with a tutor to get her own high school diploma.
Centralia Regional Library District, Centralia – A mother and daughter enrolled in the Families Reading and Learning Together program at the library. When the program began, the mother was quiet and ashamed of her low reading level. She had only completed the eighth grade and relied on her daughter and older sister for reading assistance. After participating in the program a few months, her interpersonal skills improved considerably, she began communicating with others in the program and was the first to ask questions or add to discussions. Her goal is to continue to improve her reading and writing skills so she can move from ABE to GED skill level. The mother and daughter visit the library and check out books six to eight times a month. Quite a turnaround considering the mother had never been to a public library.
Hilton Hotel at Chicago O’Hare Airport – The Hilton O’Hare has a very diverse workforce of employees who speak different languages. At the beginning of the Workplace classes, employees were grouped by ethnicity/language. Through the class sessions, participants began to get to know each other and communicate in English. In one class, a Vietnamese room attendant and a Polish attendant always sat together and helped each other with their English lessons as well as their room assignments. Soon, the Moroccan pot washer became close friends with a Chinese pot washer and also with the Bosnian houseman. Human Resource and department managers identified several individuals for further training, which would lead to career advancement. One of the English as a Second Language graduates who started in housekeeping as a room attendant was promoted to the front office as a guest service agent. She was later promoted to front office supervisor.1015