A conversation with Jessica Hoffmaster, Manager, Literacy Department of the Michigan City Public Library

Recently, Kimberly Brown-Harden, Northwest Regional Coordinator at the Indiana State Library had the pleasure of sitting down with the Michigan City Public Library, where she learned about a literacy program they  are providing from the Manager of the Literacy Department, Jessica Hoffmaster.

Jessica Hoffmaster, Manager of the Literacy Department of the Michigan City Public Library

KBH: Can you give some background on how the program was created?    

JH: Charles De Young, former director of the Michigan City Public Library, was a champion for adult literacy, and sought to accommodate the needs of the community by offering a service that encouraged low literacy adults to work directly with tutors to increase their reading abilities. This program began in 1984 with one volunteer, who tutored adults who lacked basic literacy skills. As more volunteers began to work with the program, additional community needs were brought to the attention of the program. A full time coordinator was hired and new services were implemented to address the growing concern in the community about literacy levels in the region. The program then expanded to incorporate tutoring in ESL (English as a Second Language), preparation for citizenship, and students in need of tutoring for GED (General Education Diploma) assistance, and children in grades 1 through 12 who needed reading or math tutoring. Although we offer tutoring for a variety of areas, literacy, especially among school-aged children, is our greatest area of need. When they come to the program, students are typically reading at least one year below grade level, and are in danger of failing without intervention. With the one-on-one support and attention from our tutors, many of our students have large gains in all areas of reading. We currently serve approximately 55-60 students at a time, with an average of 250 students tutored per year. Some of these students have been with the program for several years, while others simply need help for a short time. As long as a student is in need of our help, and is putting forth their best effort, a student is welcome to stay in the program until they are on grade level.

KBH: How much did this program cost?    

JH: The program cost nothing to start, as tutors used either circulating materials or materials that students brought with them for their sessions. As the program grew and evolved, a part of the library was designated for tutoring, with money being spent on tutoring booths, shelving, and of course, a diverse and growing selection of materials. These materials are available to be checked out by tutors, students, and general patrons, for the enjoyment and education of everyone who uses the library. As with any professional position, there are continuing education opportunities for the program coordinator, and that education is always disseminated to the tutors, which helps increase their skill level with students. As a result, their retention within the program is often excellent, as they feel supported in their training and meaningful interaction with their students.

KBH: How many staff members are needed for this service?  

JH: There is one full time staff member that coordinates the volunteers, provides initial and ongoing training, intake and testing of students, and lesson planning, as well as ongoing clerical duties. We have, on average, 45 active tutors at any given time and several of our tutors have more than one student. The great majority of these tutors have little to no background in education, simply a desire to improve their community. From time to time, our program partners with other areas of the library, such as Youth Services and Circulation, to provide additional programs and activities for our students.

KBH: What do you wish you had known before starting this project?  

JH: I was a volunteer with this program for seven years before I accepted this position, and in fact, the work done in this program so impressed me that it became the reason that I earned my graduate degree in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education from Indiana University last year. Having been a tutor before I was the program coordinator has given me a unique perspective on what types of support my tutors need to feel as though they too are benefiting from their time here. While this perspective has helped me to identify with my tutors in a more complete manner, I wish that I had known precisely how difficult it would be to juggle so many responsibilities in a succinct yet meaningful manner! Although I am the fourth person who has headed up this program, there is a methodology to making it ‘my own’ without interrupting the continuity of the existing tutors and students. I had such a pleasant experience here as a tutor, I want to provide that same level to all my current tutors. I also want to make sure that my tutors are targeting the areas in which their students need the most immediate help, and being that attuned to each student can at times be a challenge.

KBH: Is it ok to contact you for additional information?  

JH: Yes

KBH: What is your e-mail address?    

JH: jhoffmaster@mclib.org

KBH: What was the program’s biggest success?

JH: Perhaps our biggest tangible success is that of Char Prieto, who was an ESL student with our program in the mid 1990s. She moved here from Spain in the mid 1980s, and although educated, needed help with her written English skills. Through our program, she worked with her tutor, Valia Hirsch, for several years to improve her writing. Mrs. Prieto earned her Ph.D. in 2000, the year Mrs. Hirsch passed away. She is now known as Dr. Prieto, a Professor of Spanish, International Languages, Literatures & Cultures with California State University in Chico. We have other successes, of course; we regularly have students who pass their HSE (High School Equivalency), many of whom have gone on to college. We also have great success with our younger reading students. Many of our students come from families where low literacy is a cyclical problem. Parents want the best for their students, but simply do not have the ability themselves to help their child academically. Many of those students, once they have some small successes, thrive on those small steps and bring their reading levels up to that of their peers. Often our students need additional phonics instruction, especially those students whose primary language at home is not English. I train our tutors in our phonics programs and provide additional supports to ensure optimal student success. We attempt to provide meaningful reinforcement of student success to all of our students, and one method that is popular is our treasure box. Last year I commissioned a handmade treasure box for the program, and when students have an exceptional session, they are encouraged to go into the treasure box and find a reward for themselves. Even these small reminders help to keep the learning continuum moving forward for our students!

KBH: Can this program be reproduced at another library?

JH: Yes

This blog post by Kimberly Brown-Harden, Professional Development Librarian. For more information, contact the Professional Development Office at (317) 232-3697 or email statewideservices@library.in.gov.