Loss of South Berkshire Educational Collaborative creates need

Monday September 10, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- With the start of the summer came the closing of the South Berkshire Educational Collab orative and its educational program for adult English language learners and seekers of GEDs, leaving a third of these adult learners in Berkshire County with few options to continue their education.

Two other Berkshire County organizations applied to the state for funding to sponsor the Adult Basic Education (ABE) program in South County, but were denied.

So while one of the key providers has gone away, the need for such programs has not.

"We are seeing a big increase in students seeking our services since the closing of the collaborative," said Laura Qualliotine, who joined the Literacy Network of South Berkshire in June as its new executive director. "It's a huge loss."

The organization, also known as LitNet, offers one-on-one instruction in basic academic skills accessible to adults living in southern Berkshire County, free of charge.

According to a definition on the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website, ABE programs typically offer a range of free educational services for adults from basic literacy (including English for non-native speakers of English), numeracy, and high school equivalency (GED)/adult diploma programs (ADP).

LitNet trains community volunteers to help people with reading, math, to learn English as a second language, and to obtain a high school equivalency diploma, but it's not licensed to award students credentials.

The nearest GED-granting programs are located in Pittsfield and North Adams, through the Adult Learning Center and Northern Berkshire Adult Basic Education Program respectively.

John Grogan is the former director of adult basic education for the South Berkshire Educational Collaborative (SBEC).

Formed in 1976, the collaborative lost full-time director and grant writer Karin Deyo in summer 2011 due to lack of staffing funds. The agency was still awarded a total of $211,474 in general and supplemental funding for ABE services in fiscal 2012.

The SBEC slowly dissolved because no further funding proposals were submitted to the state.

During the last year, Grogan said the collaborative served between 160 and 170 ABE students. He said many of these adults were challenged by issues of poverty, language barriers as well as matters of working long hours and raising families. The SBEC ran four vans to help transport students from their homes to class sites.

To try to better serve its ABE students further, the SBEC program partnered with Berkshire Community College last year to offer college preparatory-level class sections of English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).

"I think with that upper level of course work, we started to give hope and a vision of the future to students," Grogan said. The program was able to help at least five known students transition into college classes at BCC last year.

While municipalities are not required by the state to offer ABE programs, they are encouraged and driven by need and the availability of state and federal funds. In addition to these funds, ABE programs typically receive matching funds from their hosting agency, such as a college or public grade-school system.

In February of this year, the state received proposals from both BCC and Housatonic-based agency Multicultural BRIDGE to apply for funding to support SBEC's adult education program.

Gwendolyn Hampton-VanSant is the executive director and co-founder of BRIDGE, which serves a large population of immigrants. She said a majority of BRIDGE members have been educated with the SBEC adult education program.

"Four applicants applied for ABE funding in Berkshire County. The two top-rated proposals were submitted by the Pittsfield Public Schools and for the Northern Berkshire region. The proposals submitted by BRIDGE and Berkshire Community College rated lower and were not recommended for funding," a spokesman from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education told The Eagle in an email response.

"What happens in the county, regardless where we are located, really affects adult education for all of us," said Thelma Margulies, coordinator of the Northern Berkshire ABE Program.

Northern Berkshire ABE also lost a program this fall due to a lack of state funding. The program received an Adult Career Pathways grant from the state and offered a new program back in the spring aimed at helping adults transition from a GED or ESOL program into a college program or a career.

Though Margulies said she wanted to apply for funding to continue the program this fall, she said the state did not offer the opportunity to do so in time.

On Tuesday, the state issued a request for proposals for Adult Career Pathways funding. A total of $58,598 in state and federal funding is available to Berkshire County through the competitive process.

On Aug. 31, the state posted application information for Community Adult Learning Centers funds, which support ABE programs. A total of $192,423 is available to the Southern Berkshire region of Great Barrington and Lee, subject to state and federal appropriations.

Both Berkshire Community College and Multicultural BRIDGE told The Eagle that they are interested in applying for the latter funds in hopes of reviving the ABE program for South County residents.

"I was surprised when neither of us got the funding [when we initially applied]," said Gwendolyn Hampton-VanSant, executive director and co-founder of BRIDGE. "Now there's a huge service gap." she said.

But Gina Stec, the co-author of the BCC proposal said that in the meantime, various agencies are looking to support students despite the lack of a program.

"We are concerned that there is a lack of services down there, but the good thing is that everybody sort of pulls together in Berkshire County when these kinds of things happen," she said.

To reach Jenn Smith:
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On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink


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