Family Literacy

JEFFERSON-CLARION HEAD START early childhood professional and case manager Joi Barkdoll-Pflugh (left) plays with Serenity while the girl’s mother studies nearby as part of the Family Literacy Program.

CLARION – Every week, Monday through Thursday, parents from Clarion, Jefferson and the northern parts of Armstrong counties make the trip to adult-learning classes in Brookville, Clarion and Punxsutawney.

Whether earning a general educational equivalence diploma or just brushing up on rusty math and reading skills so that they can help their children with homework, the Adult Literacy Program of Jefferson-Clarion Head Start lends them a hand in reaching for a better future for themselves and their children.

Courtney Zewe, area manager and adult educator, said that job prospects are much brighter for students who complete their GEDs.

“Even for minimum-wage jobs these days, employers are looking for candidates with at least a high school diploma,” she said. “Many of our adult learners go even farther and attend outside classes in nursing and other subjects.”

While the emphasis is on adults in the program, the regional Head Start offices take a holistic approach toward family education. Parenting skills are part of the curriculum along with reading and writing and arithmetic.

“Not only do the adults study math, science, reading and social studies but also child-centered activities,” Zewe said. “They play interactive games with the children that reinforce knowing their colors, recognizing the names of things and fostering other skills that children need for success when they go to school.”

At the Clarion center on Thursday morning, Joi Barkdoll-Pflugh, early childhood professional and case manager, sat on the floor of a vibrant room engaging two small girls in play while their mothers studied math next door.

“We watch and play with their children,” she said. “The parents can study uninterrupted without having to worry about finding babysitters.”

In addition, the Family Literacy Program runs a van service to outlying areas to pick up parents and children who do not have access to transportation. Having transportation and childcare take much of the burden from parents and encourage their participation and completion of the program.

“Any adult family member is eligible to pursue a GED or upgrade skills,” Barkdoll-Pflugh said. “This can be anyone from a parent or grandparent to an aunt or uncle. The only qualifier is that the child they care about is a third-grader or younger.”

The tuition for one GED class is $30, quite a stretch for many participants to afford. Fortunately, the Pennsylvania Career Center offers some funding, with discreet volunteers making up any shortfalls as needed.

Despite the Jefferson-Clarion part of its name, the family literacy program also serves families in the portions of Armstrong County that lie within the Redbank Valley School District. Two residents of that area are success stories who bring smiles to Zewe’s and Barkdoll-Pflugh’s faces.

Tara Musser, a program graduate from Seminole, is one of them. She left high school before receiving her diploma and decided to get her GED six years later.

“I got my GED in the winter of 2015,” she said. “I completed it in about six months, and then I started taking licensed practical-nursing classes last November. I want to become an RN, but that’s still a way in the future.”

Musser said that she was never encouraged when she was in school. She thought that studying for her GED would be too hard, but she soon found that learning was within her reach.

A similar story comes from Zoe Rupert of New Bethlehem, who obtained her GED, got her first job and is enjoying the fruits of her labor — more money.

“It is all about removing barriers for people,” Zewe said. “If we can get them to their classes and make sure that they have tuition help, we can watch their kids while they do their schoolwork.”

At present, the Family Literacy Program is conducting a big push to enroll enough students to meet a state-mandated quota. Failure to enroll an adequate number of adults by the end of December could mean a cut in the program’s budget in 2019.

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