After two years, the experimental program seeks fresh funding to continue and expand
New “Learning Lounges" help digital newcomers to meet a mouse, excel at Excel and wander the Web
Rhode Island Library Report
WHEN EDITH LAURENT wanted help in an English class she was taking at the Community College of Rhode Island in Providence, she headed straight for a downtown lounge.
It’s not the usual kind: this one has no bartender, no featured crooner, no early bird specials – just some tables and chairs and a ready supply of laptop and tablet computers in case patrons show up without their own.
Called “The Learning Lounge,” it’s on the fifth floor of the Providence Public Library, and it is part of a two-year-old experiment in extending the role of libraries in providing adult education and job readiness services.
Among The Learning Lounge’s offerings: help with job searches and resume writing; computer training; a typing “club;” access to the Internet; advice on how to navigate the World Wide Web; and a device that helps people with disabilities use computer keyboards and monitors.
The Learning Lounge’s major asset, however, is its staff, experts such as Larry Britt, a technology specialist, who serve as guides for people like Edith Laurent by helping them to solve immediate problems, and, importantly, teaching them skills and techniques they can use on their own.
In Laurent’s case, she was facing a deadline for a talk for an English class and needed some research pointers. She was soon connecting with Websites that had the information she was looking for.
This was no surprise. Laurent, 54, a certified nursing assistant, has been to The Learning Lounge frequently and finds Britt and other staffers invariably resourceful.
“I have to say, Larry, he’s wonderful,” Laurent says. “I’ve never asked him for something and he would say: ‘No, I can’t.’ ”
The Learning Lounge is just one of the inventions that have grown out of a program called "ALL Access in the Libraries," which is exploring new ways for libraries to strengthen their ability to provide adult education and workforce development services.
Started as a partnership between the Providence Public Library and the Cranston Public Library, the program was launched two years ago with a half-million-dollar grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Since then, the Pawtucket and East Providence public libraries have joined the program. The grant ended last October, but ALL Access is seeking new financing to continue and to add more hours and expand the concept to more libraries.
As of mid-December, 2015, the program had drawn 393 “visitors,” about a third of them people for whom English is not their first language and 43 percent reporting that they are unemployed.
At the same time, nearly 27 percent said they already have four-year college degrees, an indication that education is an on-going process for many Rhode Island adults contending with a rapidly changing, technology-driven economy.
It is also an example of a trend in which libraries increasingly are offering
In fact, as the Library Report wrote last year, programming is one of the fastest-growing areas for libraries, bringing increasing numbers of patrons, while lending of hard-copy books has been declining, as more library users borrow books through libraries’ downloading services without having to leave home.
Libraries, of course, always have been places to which people turn when they need extra help in school and college, or when they are looking for jobs.
But according to Karisa Tashjian, who directs ALL Access, one of the goals of the new program is to give libraries a more robust role in the field of adult education and workforce readiness, taking advantage of their high-profile status with the public and convenient locations in their communities.
Further, she says, there is an enormous need for adult education services in Rhode Island, where current programs have room for 6,000 students, but the need may be as high as 100,000 slots.
Tashjian, who is executive director of the Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative, an education program for which the Providence Public Library is its fiscal agent, says she and colleagues at the Cranston Public Library wanted ALL Access to develop fresh approaches, working bottom-up to meet the needs of adult learners and job seekers.
Thus, the concept of a “Learning Lounge” wasn’t envisioned when the Providence and Cranston libraries sought the half-million-dollar National Leadership Grant for Libraries.
Instead, the lounge was an outgrowth of continuing discussions among a core group of 10 librarians and representatives of partner organizations.
Realizing that many adults were both busy with work and families, as well as uncertain of where to find help, the planners wanted to provide a gateway with as few barriers as possible.
So, one feature of The Learning Lounges - now in Providence, Cranston, East Providence and Pawtucket – is that people can show up, usually without appointments, and another is that the services are open-ended, responding to whatever needs the patrons say they have, whether it’s help in a particular subject like math; guidance on an overall education strategy; or instruction about a computer program, such as Excel, Microsoft’s calculating and spreadsheet software.
The goal is for the ALL Access staff to act as guides and facilitators, directing patrons to existing programs, some of them at other agencies and locations, or to introduce them to computer-based learning programs, serving as facilitators as the students do much of the work themselves.
The approach is suggested by the axiom that successful educational programs teach students not just a particular subject or curriculum, but how to “learn to learn,” launching them on a continuing process of self-directed education.
“We are trying to build lifelong learning,” says Tashjian.
ALL Access is perfectly aligned for someone like Edith Laurent. Born in Haiti, Laurent has been crafting and executing an education and career plan ever since she arrived in Rhode Island in 1990; it’s been a strenuous process in which she has learned English, become a U.S. citizen, obtained a high school diploma, earned certifications in two healthcare specialties and now is pursuing a two-year degree from CCRI.
Which hints at a daily schedule in which time is always in short supply.
For example, the mid-December day on which she was interviewed for this story literally began with a conference call to God: she and two other members of her Elmwood Avenue Church of God in Providence prayed together by phone.
Church activities, such as helping with a soup kitchen, occupy a significant portion of her time, as do other roles: seeing her husband off to work, getting their daughter ready for school and helping her 81-year-old mother begin her day.
As for her own work schedule, she puts in 40 hours a week (and sometimes more) as a certified nursing assistant in the labor and delivery room at Women & Infants Hospital; and she does another eight hours a week as a medication technician assistant at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
That’s in addition to a three-hour weekly class at CCRI, where she’s taking one class at a time towards her ultimate goal: to become an x-ray technician. Her first course was in English, and when she needed help, The Learning Lounge was only about a block away from CCRI.
“I have to say, they have helped me a lot,” Laurent says of the library program. “You know, it’s so hard when you are looking for research, and you don’t know where to go. The place was here; it was available.”
Karisa Tashjian says that The Learning Lounges have served as meeting places for college students like Edith Laurent. Some teachers suggest students go to the ALL Access libraries to do their homework, knowing they can get extra help, as well as having a place to work.
The ALL Access initiatives are deliberately works-in-progress, changing and evolving as experience dictates. Further, programs developed first by one library have spread to others.
Two examples are the Learning Lounge concept, and a one-on-one tutoring approach to instruction in computer and technology lore.
The Providence library developed the Learning Lounge idea – a space to which students and other patrons could come to get help with a variety of problems.
When ALL Access began, however, the Cranston library didn’t have space dedicated to technology learning. But when its new “C-Lab” was constructed with a grant from the Rhode Island-based Champlin Foundations, Cranston was able to schedule Learning Lounge activities there.
Meanwhile, as the C-Lab was being readied, Cranston developed one-on-one computer instruction, in which patrons make appointments with technology-savvy librarians, who provide individualized tutoring in sessions lasting from a half-hour to two hours, covering areas such as basic operation of computers or learning software programs, such as Microsoft’s Word processing.
“One-on-one technology appointments have been extremely positive and satisfactory to our patrons,” says Katherine Boden, Cranston’s emerging-technologies librarian, who was an ALL Access team leader when the program began.
Boden says tutoring works for some students, such as those who are uncomfortable in group settings, and alternatively, for those who want more advanced instruction than they find in more structured classes.
Thus, when Cranston opened its Providence-style Learning Lounge in the new C-Lab, the library continued the one-on-one tutoring there. Similarly, the Providence library made one-on-one tutoring one of the services at its Learning Lounge.
This kind of cross-fertilization is seen as one of ALL Access’ accomplishments.
“It’s really been great to have a partner in a forward-thinking director like Jack Martin,” the Providence library director, says Garcia, explaining that both he and Martin support expanding roles of libraries and experimenting with new programs.
“Let’s give our staffs the freedom to try new programs,” Garcia says. “If they are successful, great; if they don’t succeed, we’ll pull it out and try something new.”
Among the ALL Access successes has been its promotion of a national certification system that demonstrates that participants have mastered skills such as elementary computer operations, knowledge of software programs such as Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint and ability to use social media.
Northstar offers practice tests online, with the official certification exams monitored at participating sites, including ALL Access libraries.
“Our Northstar computer certification has been very popular,” says the Cranston library’s Boden. “We have people attend our computer classes and then take these assessments to be certified in computer basics and Microsoft Office products and then put that on their resumes.”
A major advantage of the Northstar program is that it’s free, whereas similar services charge a fee, she says. This can be important, especially for unemployed workers for whom money is tight.
Similarly, the ALL Access program at the Providence Public Library offers a “Typing Club,” which involves an online typing program that prepares students to earn a proficiency certificate through the state’s One Stop employment centers.
The ALL Access program also developed “Exploration Stations,” devices at the Providence and Cranston libraries that have features that help people with disabilities use computers, through large screens, various kinds of keyboards and computer “mouse” mechanisms and other features.
They were created in partnership with TechACCESS of Rhode Island, which provides technology services for people with disabilities. So far, Boden says, the stations mainly have attracted teachers and librarians who work with persons with disabilities, rather than patrons, and that the program is working on ways to expand their use by individuals.
‘COMMITTED TO CONTINUING’
Since the federal grant ended last Oct. 31, Tashjian says the program is operating with existing staff as it looks for new financing to help it expand to other libraries and increase the days and hours during which it operates.
Boden says the program also is looking for additional partners, which can use Library Lounge and other facilities for their related programs. For example, the Cranston library has worked with House of Hope Community Development Corporation in providing computer learning for homeless individuals to increase their job-hunting skills.
Garcia, the Cranston library director, says that he wants to keep the program going.
“I think it has been a really successful project, and we, I know, are committed to continuing it with our current staff in our library,” he said.
ALL Access also has had indirect benefits for a number of libraries, Garcia said.
For example, the program allowed him to hire Boden as an ALL Access team leader. When he was able to hire her fulltime onto the library’s regular payroll, that opened a slot to hire another ALL Access worker.
In turn, the replacement worker found a job at Virginia Tech university; another was hired as a librarian by the West Warwick school system;
“It was kind of a cool thing seeing people we hired as interns go onto fulltime jobs immediately,” Garcia says, although he acknowledges he would have liked to have had the funds to hire them himself.
Tashjian says ALL Access has been compiling data to show how the effort has worked, an important step she says in being able to prove to future funders that libraries can be a key player in adult education and employment training. Some of the statistics are available on the program’s Website's "dashboard."
She is pleased about the program’s versatility, in that patrons have come in for help in one area, then return for guidance in another.
“We don’t want learning to be a one-time thing,” she says.
Boden says the Cranston library has had positive feedback from some patrons.
“New people come into the library and say: ‘Oh, I didn’t know the library offered this, but my mother told me about it,’ and they are very shocked that we offer these services,” she says.
Some patrons have told Boden and others at the library that the help they received at the library had direct effects on their job searches.
“Sometimes it’s just working, maybe, on their LinkedIn profiles or showing them how to apply on certain sites, and then we hear back, and they got a job or they got the interview,” she says.
Karen Mellor, state chief of library services and head of the Office of Library and Information Services, served on the program’s advisory steering committee and gives the effort by the Providence Public Library and the Cranston Public Library high marks.
“The two libraries have done great work,” Mellor told the Library Report in an e-mail.
“Through the program, the ties between adult education and libraries have been substantially strengthened to assist those Rhode Islanders who need help with digital literacy and online learning,” Mellor says.
“Karisa (Tashjian) has done, and continues to do, fantastic work to promote adult learning in libraries,” Mellor adds.
Edith Laurent has combined continuing education with job training since she and her family arrived in Rhode Island 25 years ago.
Through the International Institute, she began learning English, then became a certified nursing assistant, working at Steere House. Later she earned a certificate that allows her to dispense medications, which is her job now at Steere House, in addition to her primary nursing assistant’s work at Women & Infants.
Her new goal is to earn a degree at the Community College of Rhode Island that will qualify her for work as an x-ray technician. In the process, she needed a high school diploma, which she sought through the Dorcas International Institute and later Genesis Center.
As she worked towards her high school diploma, she found that she lacked computer skills, which is when she met Larry Britt, the technology specialist for the Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative and ALL Access. Britt teaches 12-week computer courses at various libraries and happened to be running one at the Pawtucket Public Library when Laurent signed up. "I have to say, when I started with Larry, maybe I know the 'mouse,' by name,” and that was about all, Laurent says. By the end of the class, she says, “I don’t want to say I’m an expert – but I can do a lot of things by myself.”
She said patients and others sometimes urge her to seek a nursing degree, and indeed, her girlhood dream was to become a nurse. But she says she’s made a hard-headed decision to focus on becoming an x-ray technician, saying she still faces some language barriers, and that her two jobs, her family and church responsibilities take much of the time she would need to pursue a nursing degree.
“So, in life, you have to see what you can do,” she said.
Still, when she was interviewed in December, she acknowledged that the work in her CCRI English class was going well.
Shortly before New Year’s Day, Larry Britt sent a celebratory e-mail to Karisa Tashjian and others at ALL Access:
Some good news from Learning Lounge client, Edith Laurent, to end the year …. She texted me last night to thank us for our guidance and to say she received her grade for her first course at CCRI - an A !!!