Literacy tutor

A Literacy Pittsburgh tutor works with a small group of students.

It’s that time of year.

“We often see an influx of volunteers in January,” Maria Polinsky said, “because people are saying, ‘I’m re-evaluating my life. How can I give back?’”

She is director of marketing and communications for Literacy Pittsburgh, which until May was known as the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council. During its four-decade history, the organization’s mission always has been the same: helping people achieve a better life through learning.

Caitlin Griffiths with Literacy Pittsburgh student

Caitlin Griffiths helps a Literacy Pittsburgh student celebrate learning the language of his new home.

Given its nonprofit status, Literacy Pittsburgh depends to a large degree on assistance from volunteers, and about 475 of them are working with some 1,000 students in the group’s adult tutoring program. But an additional 260 or so are on a waiting list for services in English as a second language and adult basic education.

New volunteer tutors can help address the need, and training is scheduled at Mt. Lebanon Public Library with sessions from 6 to 9 p.m. Jan. 15 and 17, with attendance necessary at both. As stipulated by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, tutors must have earned a four-year degree, and the commitment includes conducting a pair of two-hour sessions per week, either one-on-one or in small groups.

“We ask that our tutors meet with students for at least six months. Certainly, we would love for them to stay longer, and many of our tutors do,” Polinsky said, noting that she recently met one who has volunteered since the mid-1980s.

Training in part focuses on tutoring adults, as opposed to children.

That's Life

Textbooks used in Literacy Pittsburgh's adult tutoring program focus on learning more about everyday situations.

Sometimes people think the process is the same, but when you’re working with adults, they have a huge variety of life experiences, goals, needs, a very different thing,” Polinsky explained.

“We’re very goal-oriented with our students. So we talk a lot with our tutors about how they can have conversations with their students about their goals and base the teaching around that.”

Following six hours of training, prospective tutors decide whether to work with adult basic education, which concentrates primarily on preparing for General Education Development testing, or English as a second language. Another three-hour training session addresses specifics.

“Once they’ve completed training, they are referred to one of our program coordinators,” Polinsky said, with the coordinators prepared to answer questions and offer support.

“Tutors get a personalized learning plan for their students that’s created by one of our education specialists,” she continued. “They recommend textbooks. They give them information on how the student tested, so we know where they’re staring from and what their goals are. So tutors come in with quite a bit of information at their disposal.”

Emphasis is placed on developing a good rapport between tutors and students, according to Caitlin Griffiths, program coordinator at Literacy Pittsburgh’s Jefferson/Baldwin location:

“We usually tell tutors, ‘The first lesson or two, don’t worry about teaching. Take time to actually get to know your student. Make sure you mesh. Make sure you have a good understanding of what their goals are and what they want to work toward.’”

In addition to its Downtown headquarters, Literacy Pittsburgh also has several other regional locations, including one at Mt. Lebanon Christian Church. Programs are intended to provide more than an education.

“Our teachers and our transitions manager really try to kind of nudge our students a little bit into thinking more about career goals, rather than just getting a job,” Polinsky explained. “We really want to move them into high-demand professions and on a career path that will get them a family-sustaining wage.”

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Multimedia Reporter

Staff writer Harry Funk, a professional journalist for three-plus decades, has been on the staff of The Almanac since 2015. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master of business administration, both from Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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