Tomorrow is World Literacy Day. The Adult Literacy Tutors Association (ALTA) of Trinidad and Tobago is once again beginning another term of classes at its various centres.
ALTA was founded in 1992 by Paula Lucie-Smith. After participating in the volunteer adult literacy programme established by the Government of Trinidad and Tobago in 1990 (which was celebrated as International Literacy Year), Lucie-Smith continued running an adult literacy class in Woodbrook after the programme ended in December. The class attracted students from all around the nation.
"I thought there was no hope for me," said Sharon from Chaguanas. "I thought I would never learn how to read, so I continue on my way: I decided to stay illiterate. I felt that there was no place for me in the heart of society and decided to stay that way. Then, one day I met a good friend and she introduced me to a whole new life through ALTA. This is the way we should be after ALTA teaches us to read and write."
In October 1992, Lucie-Smith founded ALTA to bring together adult literacy teachers to share ideas and materials as well as to direct students to teachers close to their home or work. However, those who joined ALTA wanted training in how to teach adult literacy and access adult literacy books, magazines and teaching aids from the Caribbean and beyond.
Thus, in January 1993, ALTA established a teacher resource library with materials from literacy publishers and programmes around the world, including: the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Jamaica and St Lucia.
The following year, ALTA began to train adult literacy tutors. Working with British and American training packages and videos (UK Adult Literacy and Basic Skills Unit, Literacy Volunteers of America), Lucie-Smith and Hilary Montgomery, aided by local reading professionals, Wallis Wyke and Zena Puddy, developed a pilot training course.
Today, ALTA trains more than 100 tutors every year.
"Ever since I've known myself I have gone through life ashamed because I can't read well," said Thelma of St James. "Sometimes I get so frustrated that I feel like going and lock myself up in a dark room and never coming out. But three years ago, I heard about ALTA and it looked like my prayers had been answered. I went and enrolled in the classes. At first I was scared, but when I saw the amount of people there I got excited and brave. Now I know that if you want to improve yourself, you come to ALTA. There are a lot of nice and willing teachers there who can help you."
ALTA is currently celebrating its 18th year of providing free literacy classes, which it does to adults 16 years and over at 50 locations nationwide.
Registration for the new semester is today and tomorrow, between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. at all main public libraries.
Prospective students are invited to visit any of the 11 registration venues, located in Arima, Chaguanas, Couva, Point Fortin, Port of Spain, Princes Town, San Fernando, Sangre Grande, San Juan, Tunapuna and Siparia.
Approximately 1,500 students attend ALTA community classes annually. Of this total student body, roughly 900 are new students, while about 600 are either repeating or moving up to a higher level.
Classes are held twice a week for two hours and run with the school year from September to July, with holidays for Christmas and Easter.
Once registered, the student may stay as long as needed to achieve the literacy goals they set for themselves.
ALTA has no tests but, at the end of the academic year in July, awards a certificate based on an end-of-level evaluation.
In January 1998, at the request of prison authorities, ALTA volunteers began teaching Port of Spain prison inmates who wanted to improve their literacy.
In 2001, on the initiative of prison officers, ALTA conducted a tutor-training course at Carrera Island Prison for 15 literate inmates. The success of this programme led to its extension in the three other prisons: Golden Grove Men's Prison, Golden Grove Women's Prison and the Maximum Security Prison at Arouca.
By 2002, 58 trained volunteer ALTA inmate-tutors were teaching the non-literate inmates to read and write.
"My mother died when I was four years old," said a former inmate, who wished to remain anonymous. "My father was an alcoholic and I did not have anyone to send me to school, so I never learn how to read and write. Eleven years after my mother died, my father died also. I was now 15 years old and could not get a job. I had to live on my own and I did not have no money to buy food.
"One of my friends who sold drugs offer me drugs to sell so I could get money to support myself. After selling for some time, I was arrested by the police and sent to prison for four years. I thought it was four years wasted of my life, so I was very happy when I heard about the school and started to attend. Today, I am very proud of myself. I learn how to sign my name and I also learn the five vowels.
"I learn how to break up big words and I learn the sound of the letters and many other interesting things. I take this special opportunity to give thanks to all of my teachers because, without them, I don't learn anything."
Graduates and students who want extra reading practice can attend an ALTA "Reading Circle" to read material of their choice in a small group or one-on-one guided by a tutor.
ALTA produces all its own teaching materials. These include workbooks, phonic cards, games, reading books and tutors' handbooks.
ALTA's work is recognised for its effectiveness in reaching large numbers of adults at low cost. In 2001, ALTA received a national award, Hummingbird Medal (gold), for service in the sphere of education.
ALTA has three offices: a head office in Port of Spain and branches in San Fernando and Arima. The administration of these offices and the publication of teaching materials incur costs which are met solely through the generosity of corporate and private citizens, since ALTA receives no Government subvention.
Members of the public who are interested in attending classes or volunteering with ALTA as a tutor or in another capacity are invited to call 624-ALTA (2582) or 624-3442 in Port of Spain; 664-ALTA (2582) in Arima or 653-4656 in San Fernando.