The Literacy Network is trading its cramped quarters in what was once a cheese shop for nearly quadruple the space in the former Wingra Clinic and the ability to serve twice as many people seeking to improve their English language skills.
After some renovations and updates to the former medical center, the Literacy Network plans to open the doors this fall at its new location at 701 Dane St., executive director Jeff Burkhart said.
St. Mary’s sold the former clinic to the Literacy Network for less than half of its appraised value, Burkhart said. The nonprofit organization launched a $3 million fundraising campaign last month to cover costs associated with its new facility.
Founded in 1974, the Literacy Network serves more than 1,000 Dane County residents annually at 28 different locations. But because of limited space and resources, some learners are put on waiting lists. About 800 people volunteer with the network each year.
Burkhart said the network’s cramped and decaying headquarters at 1118 S. Park St. were undignified.
“This campaign is about dignity, it’s about giving people respect and helping them to see themselves differently,” Burkhart said, adding, “when people are in (the new) building ... they’re going to see themselves differently.”
In the new space, the Literacy Network will have four expanded classrooms and a dedicated library, he said, giving students the appropriate space and the respect of being in a real learning center.
According to a study conducted in 2003, one in seven Dane County residents — or more than 70,000 people — struggle with low literacy.
Burkhart said literacy rates are directly correlated with life outcomes.
“When we talk about literacy, we don’t mean people can’t read a word,” he said. “We’re looking at ... being able to read a note from your child’s teacher or after-visit summary from your doctor or labels in a grocery store.”
The Literacy Network’s course offerings follow UW-Madison’s semester system, with classes each spring, summer and fall. The organization offers classes at each level of English language ability, and tries to pair learners with designated tutors to give them more personalized instruction. Burkhart said this helps learners achieve their specific goals.
Claudia Barrio, 30, came to Madison from Mexico about seven or eight years ago, but didn’t find the Literacy Network until last January. Although she took a few English classes in Mexico, she struggled to complete simple tasks, like shopping, because of the language barriers.
“If you need to buy a simple thing like perfume, if they don’t understand you … you can’t ask about the ingredients,” Barrio said.
After attending Literacy Network’s second-level English class, Barrio said she can now go to the store and have people understand her. But she has found her personal tutor to be her greatest resource.
“I ask them all of my questions, they can understand me and see what is my problem. Like conversation, reading,” she said.
Burkhart said that while a majority of their students are English language learners, they have attracted more adult basic education students — native English speakers still reading at low levels — through a program known as SCALE. The program, which began in 2011, teaches adults computer proficiency and other work-related skills. The program also helps to identify low literacy levels among participants and to address those issues.
The Literacy Network also focuses on health literacy. Tutors take learners to meet students training to be doctors, nurses and pharmacists at UW’s School of Medicine and Public Health, giving them the chance to have a conversation with a practitioner. At the same time, the program is educating future doctors and nurses on how to identify and approach health literacy issues to improve communication with patients.
Often, Burkhart said, an individual with limited English skills may receive instructions from a doctor or nurse that they don’t understand. When they can’t follow the instructions appropriately, they can end up needing additional medical care.
“You’re never going to see on a patient’s chart, this person was admitted, or readmitted, because of low health literacy,” Burkhart said.
But, he said, the lack of health literacy can cost the county millions of dollars annually.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the address of the new Literacy Network location.