Decades ago, nearly all Loudouners were American born. In 2000, about 11 percent of the 312,000-resident population was foreign born, according to county data. Today, about a quarter of the 413,000-resident population was born outside the United States, with 32,000 Loudouners reporting they do not speak English well, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.
That’s where the Loudoun Literacy Council comes in—working with more than 500 registered volunteers and a staff of seven to teach English communication to families who struggle to find the time or money to learn the language.
This year, the council is celebrating 40 years of that work.
Loudoun Literacy Council was set up in 1980, when, according to Executive Director Nikki Daruwala, the county reported its first influx of refugees. To help those new residents learn English to live in America to their fullest potential, a handful of women began hosting ad hoc tutoring classes.
The program grew throughout the next two decades, adding more classes and events to better help adult English learners grasp the language. In 1998, the council even added a family literacy program, which additionally gives children the chance to learn English.
In the past four decades, Loudoun Literacy has helped more than 10,000 adults and served close to 4,000 families, all while distributing tens of thousands of books, with nearly 15,000 distributed in the last fiscal year alone. From July 2018 to June 2019, the council helped 315 adults learn English and provided 1,830 low-income families with literacy resources.
“Each year, it’s grown more and more,” Daruwala said about the council’s programs.
The council focuses its efforts equally on adult and youth classes. In the adult spectrum, there are five levels of courses that include a basic English class, which serves more than 300 adults annually. The council also offers individual tutoring for those who can’t make it to classes.
“We don’t want anyone falling through the cracks,” Daruwala said.
This year, the price of registration has been decreased to $40 to celebrate the council’s 40th anniversary. But, Daruwala said, there are many free classes and workarounds for low-income adults.
For example, Daruwala said classes are free for adults who have kids enrolled in its programs, receive healthcare from the Loudoun Free Clinic or food from Loudoun Hunger Relief, or just plain can’t afford to sign up.
“We have no questions asked,” Daruwala said. “We don’t want [money] to be another barrier or another limitation.”
Daruwala said the council’s efforts to teach English to those adults does more than provide them with the resources they need to communicate and survive in an English-dominated nation—it also pays dividends for their children. That’s because, Daruwala said, a child’s success depends on their parents’ literacy level.
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, children whose parents have low literacy levels have a 72 percent chance of reading at the lowest levels.
In addition to benefitting from their parents’ success in English classes, Loudoun children also have a chance to learn from Loudoun Literacy’s free youth classes. Now running for 22 years, those classes are all part of the council’s Family Literacy Program, which incorporates the Head Start program and, more recently, the Starting Towards Excellence in Preschool Literacy program.
The Head Start program is intended for Loudoun’s 100 most in-need children. They’re selected by Loudoun County Public Schools, which has found that 16 percent of the county’s economically disadvantaged families are English language learners.
In the Head Start program, kids read each week, participate in family literacy nights and take one new book home each month. They also bring home a literacy pack for their parents, which provides them with tips on what they can do with their kids to help them learn English, like point out numbers while grocery shopping or colors while on a walk.
“You don’t want any child to fall between the cracks,” Daruwala said. “You want every child to be kindergarten-ready.”
In fiscal year 2019, 103 students received 186 hours of reading instruction.
Loudoun Literacy’s STEP program is intended for the next 300 in-need children in Loudoun. Those kids are sent home with six new books annually.
Loudoun Literacy is also rolling out a new program this year—a bi-annual School Success program that will be hosted in all of Loudoun’s title one schools. Throughout the program’s 12 weeks, parents of school children will meet for two hours a week to learn from a tailored curriculum how to communicate in English with school faculty.
The parents will learn how to talk with their children about their progress; how to understand school vocabulary, like comments on report cards; how to call into the absentee line and leave a message; and, among other lessons, how to prepare for parent-teacher conferences.
“We’re empowering them to be able to advocate for their child and to be better informed,” Daruwala said.
Moving into its fifth decade, Loudoun Literacy Council is focused on helping adults and children learn the English communication skills they need to live in Loudoun County through more than just classroom instruction, but also extracurricular interaction. Daruwala said that takes place during events like the council’s annual picnic, which will be held in early May.
“It’s a safe environment to grow and learn and make those mistakes and get polished and grow,” Daruwala said about the council’s various instruction venues. “We build community that way.”
The council also is starting a new program in which it will provide free English classes to residents in communities that lack many public transportation options, like Sugarland Run in Sterling. Those classes will be held at the community center.
More generally speaking, Daruwala said the council continues searching for ways to engage with the community and “move the needle” any way it can.
“I think we’ve been very good at those collaborative efforts. We’re doing our best to meet people where they are,” she said. “That is really important to us—it is enriching.”
Learn more at loudounliteracy.org.