Determination and Positive Attitude Define Literacy Student

After two years of hard work, Rena Chambers is selected for second ‘Student of the Year’ award

With her casual smile and black leather book bag, Rena Chambers is the first student to enter Room 304 at the Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center on a Thursday afternoon.

It’s the end of another school week for South Side resident Chambers — who is 50.

Chambers is in her second year learning to read and write English, and she is the Literacy Volunteers of Greater Syracuse Student of the Year recipient for 2011.

Rena Chambers learns how to read and write English at the Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center. -- Photo by Hannah Cordell, Staff Photo

“I wasn’t expecting it at all, but I felt great,” Chambers said.

It is important to know how to read and write English because minimal competency is required for most everything — such as reading a medical prescription. In Syracuse, the need has blossomed in the past two years.

“A lot of these students coming into our program can’t read bus schedules, for example, because they don’t know how to read,” said Marsha L. Tait, executive director of Literacy Volunteers. “So I knew that we had to offer more small-group programs to help accommodate as many students as possible,” added Tait, who has been involved in adult literacy for 16 years.

Two years ago, the program had fewer than 100 students in instruction, but this year there are 165 active student-tutor pairs and more than 80 students in small-group classrooms.

The main challenge the organization faces: finding resources and financial help.

“The single largest funding for our program comes from the New York State Adult Literacy Education Funding Stream, but it’s never enough,” Tait said.

The annual budget for Literacy Volunteers is around $200,000 per year.

Once every year, Literacy Volunteers asks tutors to nominate students for its top award. According to program manager Robin Morgan, tutors submit a written nomination that includes the student’s history, challenges and accomplishments. The staff reviews the nominations and makes its selection; the winner is announced at an annual celebration, Morgan said.

Chambers’ nomination was a compilation of staff observations and comments from Debbie Mann, who is Chambers’ one-on-one tutor. Chambers has been working with Mann since February 2011.

“When she stumbles over reading and writing she doesn’t quit, and she asks for other examples and keeps going until she understands,” Mann said in the nomination.

Before Chambers started the program two years ago, she wasn’t too sure about joining. “I was just too ashamed to come back to school because of my age,” she said. “But I wanted to learn to read and write before I left this world, so I told myself I had to try it.”

Her first experience sitting in a classroom in a small-group class made Chambers uneasy.

“I was very nervous the first time I got here because I saw the teacher in front of the board and saw that everyone was reading. When the time came for me to read, I said I couldn’t read but the students helped me sound the words out and I started loosening up, day by day.”

Before she joined the program, Chambers had a difficult time. “My own family didn’t believe me when I would tell them I didn’t know how to read or write,” she said. “I used to sit there, take the newspaper, stare at it and it would look like I was reading but I really wasn’t.”

Fighting back tears, Chambers recalled what it was like when the mail would arrive at her door. “I would wait for guests to leave and then I’d call one of my kids to read me the mail because it was so hard I couldn’t even do that,” she said. “But now, I can read it myself, and if there is some things I can’t understand, then I call my kids, but it’s no longer for them to read me the mail. Now it’s just to explain to me certain things.”

Credentialed teachers at the Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center teach the small-group classes, where students learn in regular classrooms with peers.

Kevin Lucas, who started last fall as a teacher at the Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center, mentors Chambers as her small-group teacher. -- Photo by Hannah Cordell, Staff Photo

Kevin R. Lucas, 42, started teaching last fall and is currently Chambers’ small-group teacher. “Kevin has helped me a lot,” Chambers said, “because I understand the words and I like how he writes on the board and shows us how to write it and pronounce it at the same time.”

Chambers and six other students go to class every Tuesday and Thursday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., where they learn to pronounce and write different words in packets that Lucas provides. At a recent class, Lucas told the students: “We have a new set of words but let’s review the pronunciation of ‘et’ in the word ‘pet.’ ”

Later, the students read the new words out loud with Lucas. Then he used them in a sentence while the students wrote the words in their packets.

The process continued throughout the whole packet, with each student reading sentences out loud and using the words they had learned throughout the session. If a student had difficulty, others pitched in, sounding out the words and helping one another.

Students at Literacy Volunteers are not on a specific semester teaching program.

“Because we are working with students at the lowest level of literacy skill, the time it will take them to progress is highly variable,” Tait said. “It’s all a question of where they came from, what their literacy level is and their motivation to accomplish their learning goals.”

Chambers is motivating others, too. “I talk a lot about my education to young kids, adults, anyone, because I feel good and proud of myself and also tell them about how much this program really helps people.”

She talks to her own 12 grandchildren about school.

“I get upset when I hear that my grandchildren aren’t doing too well in school. I tell them to keep going to school because they have the help at a young age that I am now experiencing at 50.”

Having the opportunity to go back to school to learn to read and write was a blessing to Chambers. “I can’t help but thank God, who answered my prayers for me because I did want to go back to school and learn. “He opened the doors to this program that has helped me so much from the very start.”