Literacy program shuts down

11/07/2018

Last Thursday, the Marin Literacy Program shut its doors in Point Reyes Station. Citing a lack of state, county and private funding, as well as a shift in demographics and an increase in other literacy organizations in Marin County, executive director Robin Carpenter decided it was time to shelve the project. 

The Marin Literacy Program started in 1985 as a joint venture between the San Rafael Public Library and Marin County Free Library systems. But in 2011, state and county funding was discontinued, throwing the program into what Ms. Carpenter called “a structural and financial crisis.” The program’s board, which previously oversaw fundraising, took over governance, and the Marin County Free Library ended its partnership with the organization. 

Ms. Carpenter said that in the first year the board took over, it cut the organization’s budget of roughly $700,000 by 80 percent, though it also increased the number of student and tutor pairs by 35 percent. For the last seven years, the program has served over 3,500 people through tutoring, ESL classes and inmate literacy programs at the Marin County Jail and San Quentin State Prison. It has also offered books and a bilingual story time at the Point Reyes Farmers Market. 

In a way, the withdrawal of state funding was a blessing in disguise. “State funding couldn’t be used for anything that smacked as English as a second language,” Ms. Carpenter explained. “We couldn’t use bilingual books or materials. It was supposed to be a pure literacy program for well-spoken English speakers who fell through the cracks… All our students had always been ESL.” 

She estimated that in her eight years as director, fewer than 15 native-born English speakers went through the program. The majority of students are Latino, though there is also a contingent of Vietnamese and Chinese. 

“The two biggest reasons people come is their kids are starting school and they want to communicate with teachers and help with homework, [or] they would like to be able to function better where they’re working, whether landscaping or working at CVS, or they would like to start their own company,” Ms. Carpenter said. 

Robert Steinberg started teaching ESL classes for the Marin Literacy Program about four years ago. “Language is important to all of us, and people are better citizens and community members when they can articulate in English, since it’s the primary language,” he said. Along with providing him with materials and a “really nice space to teach in,” Mr. Steinberg said the program allowed him to serve students’ particular needs. 

“Let’s say someone wanted certification as a contractor, but the exam is only in English—well, [I could] help them study for that exam,” he said. “Then you help out folks who had issues with the medical system, how to fill out forms or get some insurance. You act as a quasi-social worker, reading documents and pointing them to professionals in town. It’s a way of providing hooks into the community for these people who may not be able to grab the hooks otherwise.”

Ms. Carpenter noted that this approach also made it more difficult to get funding, as the organization had no clear way to show the progression of its students through a set scholastic route—a requirement for many grant applications. 

For six years, after the state and county pulled funding, the program was largely sustained by a grant from the Marin Community Foundation. In 2015, however, the foundation discontinued the grant, which focused specifically on immigrant integration. While Ms. Carpenter looked for another organization willing to take over the program, donations from the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company and the Giacomini family helped keep the organization afloat. 

Currently the program has three paid members, including Ms. Carpenter, and 128 volunteers. Ms. Carpenter said that nonprofits she approached about taking over the program said doing so would cost over $200,000 a year, between hiring a full-time coordinator and paying benefits and high wages. Ultimately, it made more sense to disband. 

Shifting demographics have also reduced the need for the program. “We noted that, when the Drakes Bay Oyster Company closed, people were moving, and we didn’t have as many people in the Latino community living in Point Reyes or Stinson or Olema or even Bolinas—they were moving further up to Tomales and Petaluma,” Ms. Carpenter said. “So the need was starting to go down because the prices have gone up so high.”

Luckily, remaining clients will not be left in a lurch. “In West Marin, the tutors who were doing one-to-one tutoring were already tutoring at dairies or at homes; they’ll just continue on their own,” Ms. Carpenter said. 

Both the inmate literacy program and the parenting program in Marin County Jail will be overseen by another nonprofit. Ms. Carpenter said there is an increase in organizations taking on literacy work in Novato, Petaluma and Sonoma. And in West Marin, the library has also ramped up its literacy offerings in recent years, and offers one-on-one tutoring, five ESL classes a week and summer reading programs for ranch families. 

Though the office is now closed, Ms. Carpenter said she will make herself available over the next year for anyone seeking literacy resources in the West Marin area. Those interested can reach her at (415) 601.4491.