Access to a computer and the internet has made adult learning challenging.

Access to a computer and the internet has made adult learning challenging.

Right now there are over 64,000 people in D.C. that do not have a high school diploma. Seven-thousand of them are currently trying to change that, some by attending the adult public charter school, Academy of Hope, but the pandemic has certainly been a challenge for them and their teachers.

Many of these students are at or below the poverty line. Many of them are unemployed because of the pandemic while still trying to support their families. And many of them do not have access to computers or the internet — all of which makes learning a challenge.

There are also over 100,000 adults in D.C. that have a low literacy level, and they’re experiencing similar problems with online learning.

So, who’s helping these people make sure they have the resources to continue their education?

Produced by Kurt Gardinier


  • Lecester Johnson Chief Executive Officer, Academy of Hope; @AoHDC
  • Jimmie Williams President and CEO, Washington Literacy Center; @WASHLIT
  • Robin Barr Professor and Linguist in Residence, American University & Senior Instructor, Washington Literacy Center; @WASHLIT


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast it's Kojo for Kids with Author Judith Viorst. But first, there are over 64,000 people in D.C. who do not have a high school diploma. Seven-thousand of them are currently trying to change that. Some by attending adult literacy classes, but the pandemic has certainly created challenges for them and for their teachers especially when many of them do not have access to computers or the internet.

  • 12:00:31

    KOJO NNAMDIThere are also over 100,000 adults in the D.C. who are at a low literacy level, and many of them are experiencing similar challenges with online learning. How are they coping and what will be the long term effect of the pandemic for adult learners in the District? Joining me now is Lecester Johnson, the CEO at the Academy of Hope Public Charter School in southeast Washington. Lecester Johnson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:00:54

    LECESTER JOHNSONThank you for having me, Kojo, and for really focusing on this issue.

  • 12:00:59

    NNAMDIYou're more than welcome. What is the Academy of Hope Adult Public Charter School? And what is its mission?

  • 12:01:04

    JOHNSONAcademy of Hope is an adult school. It's a school for adults, who are 18 and over who are returning to school to obtain their high school credential through either passing the GED or the national external diploma program. But we also help adults to achieve their career goals by offering workforce development courses at the same time as they're working on their high school credential.

  • 12:01:29

    NNAMDIWho is a typical student at Academy of Hope?

  • 12:01:33

    JOHNSONA typical student is a parent, who is an average age of 30 who has been working or low wage jobs or has been underemployment and is returning to school to get their high school credential so that they can help themselves, their family and their children.

  • 12:01:54

    NNAMDIHow did your school respond to the pandemic and in-person classes being canceled?

  • 12:01:59

    JOHNSONLike all of the schools, K-12 schools alike, we had to move very quickly to getting students safe and moving online. And that meant to moving students to distance learning. And what we've found as you've mentioned, you know, the fault like was completely exposed in terms of who has access, access to the internet, access to technology to adequately participate in distance learning. So we had to scale up very quickly, within two weeks, moving towards online learning for adults and realized that there were gaps.

  • 12:02:39

    NNAMDILecester Johnson, Academy of Hope is a public charter school. Can you explain to us what that means including in terms of structure and funding?

  • 12:02:47

    JOHNSONSure. So D.C. is a leader. It was one of the first places to authorize charter schools for adults. Most states actually do not allow adult schools to become charter schools. And what that means is for a charter school we are receiving per pupil funding for every student that we serve in our school. And for us it made a huge difference. We were 35 years old. We were doing a lot of fundraising to stabilize our programs. But moving to a public charter really helped us stabilize funding a lot more than it was, when we were a community based organization. So we're receiving per pupil funding for helping adults to achieve their high school credential.

  • 12:03:39

    NNAMDIDCPS public schools in D.C. were given additional aid and resources when the pandemic began. Was your adult public charter school given the same resources?

  • 12:03:47

    JOHNSONNo. So unlike the K-12 LEAs, or local education agencies, as what we're called. Adults are not eligible for a number of the funds that K-12 schools are. For example, when the COVID relief money came through it came through what's called a Title 1 fund. So K-12 schools are eligible, but adult schools are not eligible for that funding. And none of the COVID relief money specifically identified adult schools as recipients. They called out K-12s and also higher ed. But adult ed schools are not covered at any of the relief funding at this point.

  • 12:04:30

    NNAMDILecester, what resources are you lacking? What do you and your students need now in order to succeed?

  • 12:04:37

    JOHNSONThe greatest need for us, I mean, as you know, the adults that we're serving have been hardest hit by the pandemic. They are our frontline workers. They were the restaurant and hotel workers. Many of them are unemployed at this point, and are also facing the same health crisis as others are. But one of the things that we really need and what we're trying to do is really get adults online and really scaling up our services. This spring we were able to distribute 150 laptops, hotspots. But as we get ready for the fall, we'll need to double that effort. And we need the resources to be able to help our adults to get online and to get the technology that they need, but also stable internet access.

  • 12:05:27

    JOHNSONMany of the adults that we're serving were actually using their cellphones for internet access and also to learn online. And if you can imagine taking a small phone and trying to work through your work, it's very difficult. So we really need help scaling up our services so that we're ready for the fall when adults come back.

  • 12:05:51

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Lecester Johnson, the CEO of the Academy of Hope Public Charter School in southeast D.C. Any idea where those resources are going to come from? Are you going to have to get into the business of rigorous fundraising again?

  • 12:06:04

    JOHNSONWell, we're in the business of rigorous fundraising. That's one thing that we are we're doing. But we're also really asking the city to make at least $2 million of the COVID relief funds available. There are some discretionary funds that (word?) and the city can use at their discretion. And we're really asking them to identify at least $2 million to help adult schools to even begin to address the digital divide, purchase additional laptops, pay for internet access for those learners who need it. So that that's one basic ask that we're asking the city.

  • 12:06:43

    NNAMDIJoining us now is Jimmie Williams, President and CEO of the Washington Literacy Center in northwest Washington. Jimmie Williams, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:06:51

    JIMMIE WILLIAMSThank you for having us and thank you for being a staunch advocate of literacy.

  • 12:06:57

    NNAMDIIt's certainly difficult to graduate high school if you cannot read. How big of a problem is illiteracy in the District?

  • 12:07:04

    WILLIAMSIlliteracy it's a large problem. We know that one in four District residents age 16 to 74 are reading below level one, which means reading below the third grade level. In numbers that's like 119,304 approximately people who are reading at that level in the District of Columbia.

  • 12:07:24

    NNAMDIIf I'm getting this right, these statistics are staggering. One in four adults in Washington struggles with basic reading. One in three adults in Washington cannot do basic math and 17 percent of Washingtonians live in poverty. All this while more than a quarter of D.C. residents have advanced degrees. What does that mean, Jimmie Williams, for job prospects and life prospects?

  • 12:07:47

    WILLIAMSWhat it means for job prospects it means that you'll either be unemployed perpetually. You'll be stuck in a minimum wage job. And a matter of fact it means that you don't even keep those jobs. You'll jump from job to job and we also know that people in that same situation that are that low level, your chances of being incarcerated are dramatically higher or having some kind of brush with the criminal justice system.

  • 12:08:14

    NNAMDIHere now is Emily in Alexandria, Virginia. Emily, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:19

    EMILYHi, Kojo. Thank you for letting me talk on your show. I am an adult with a learning disability. I found out that I was dyslexic when I was 19 and like later in college. And two tips that helped me out a lot then that would have helped me earlier in life for if you're trying to get through all your education now is -- there's Kindle has dyslexic fonts, which weights the letters at the bottom so it's easier for your eyes to track if dyslexia is one of your learning disabilities.

  • 12:08:48

    EMILYAnd then if you just put a clear piece of paper like they have see-through red and see-through blue are the two most effective colors apparently and you just put it on the book when you're reading and let it track down line by line and it helps you with your attention span.

  • 12:09:03


  • 12:09:04

    EMILYAnd then another thing that I do is I buy audio books that are unabridged and then the actual book with it. And I play it while I'm reading. And then I've learned like where my hiccups are. And I think everyone has different reasons for it. And I know that when my anxiety is higher, the dyslexia is worse, and that's just for me. So I'm sure different people have different experiences.

  • 12:09:24

    NNAMDIEmily, thank you very much for sharing your experience with us. Jimmie Williams, let's take a step back. What is the Washington Literacy Center and what is its mission?

  • 12:09:31

    WILLIAMSWashington Literacy Center, we started in 1963. Our mission was to teach adults who could not read, who were at the lowest levels to read. We have evolved into an institution that we teach low level -- adults who are low level reading and math workforce skills. So our mission's focus is to get our adults up to speed and so that they can attend schools like Academy of Hope and so they can continue to move up the economic ladder to self-sufficiency. So in short that's our mission is to help reintegrate these adults many of who have already given up or thought they could not go any further.

  • 12:10:09

    NNAMDIWho is a typical student at the Washington Literacy Center?

  • 12:10:12

    WILLIAMSPretty much the same profile as the Academy of Hope. Most of our students are of an average age of anywhere from 30 to 40. Most of them have kids. Most of them have lost jobs or have had huge bumps and most of them are low income. A high percentage of them are female, but we also have some that are new immigrants. So it's a varied mix, but there are all really clustered around the same age.

  • 12:10:37

    NNAMDIThere's a stigma to not being able to read. I understand, Jimmie Williams, that many people with low literacy often try to compensate and sometimes even family and friends don't know. Have you seen that? And how do you recommend people overcome that?

  • 12:10:49

    WILLIAMSYou know, it's pretty difficult. We get people in that have hidden it from their children. But the more educated their children are the more it becomes obvious. But we also know that adults, who have children who have that problem, their children have the same problem. But one of the things, we try to make it comfortable by telling people, what's your situation? And so when people come to us they've already lost jobs. So they're already desperate. But we also encourage people to say that we, you know, we have tutoring. Speaking of digital, we do have online tutoring. So there are many avenues that we try to meet people in the middle.

  • 12:11:25

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break, when we come back we'll continue this conversation on adult learning and the digital divide. We're talking with Lecester Johnson, CEO of the Academy of Hope Public Charter School, and Jimmie Williams, President and CEO of the Washington Literacy Center. When we come back we'll be joined by Robin Barr who's a Professor and a Linguist in Residence at American University and the Senior Instructor at the Washington Literacy Center. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:11:56

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about how the pandemic is affecting adult learning and the digital divide that has led to that. Joining us now is Robin Barr. Robin Barr is a Professor and the Linguist in Residence at American University and the Senior Instructor at the Washington Literacy Center. Robin Barr, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:12:13

    ROBIN BARROh, thank you for having me.

  • 12:12:15

    NNAMDIHow difficult has teaching Washington Literacy Center students been since this pandemic began?

  • 12:12:21

    BARRIt's been very difficult. I have to say that COVID has magnified the barriers that our adult students already face, because distance education is proportionately difficult for them. Number one, they don't have access to the technology as Lecester was talking about. (unintelligible) digital literacy their dyslexia is easier to remedy in person than over computer. And they don't have the time for studying in classes now that their kids are home when the schools are closed.

  • 12:12:48

    NNAMDISo how have you been teaching your students during these difficult times? Can you teach someone to read over the phone?

  • 12:12:54

    BARRIt's very difficult, because you don't see what they're seeing. You can't point to what they need to look at. And a lot of what we do -- dyslexia requires a special kind of education. It's not just tutoring. You have to -- it's multimodal, it involves finding other pathways in the brain around the roadblock of dyslexia. Like Emily mentioned, your caller, earlier a lot of our students have undiagnosed dyslexia. They never realized in school that they had dyslexia. They were told they were slow. They were told that they were lazy. They dropped out. They got into trouble.

  • 12:13:34

    BARRI guarantee you that if they had been white and suburban they would have been diagnosed with dyslexia, but most of our students are not. They're from areas that were not given dyslexia -- the teachers were not given dyslexia training. So teaching people with dyslexia is very difficult to do over the phone. You have to be able to see the mouth. You have to be able to point to the words. You have to be able to do all kinds of things in person.

  • 12:14:06

    BARRSo online tutoring with Zoom, I think is our best bet, but even then our students have -- do not have digital literacy themselves. They are not very good at getting online. They can't follow the instructions, because they can't read them. They don't have internet access reliably and don't have the computers that they need.

  • 12:14:27

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Alita who says, "Thanks for having this discussion. I'm trying to obtain books to help three young adult men get their GED credentials. Do the speakers know where to request gently used books? We need two booklets in Spanish and one in English." Can you offer any assistance, Jimmie Williams?

  • 12:14:48

    WILLIAMSYou know what? Right now that's not something that we typically provide. We skew toward the training, but we do focus on both demographics. I would urge them to give us a call so that we can assist offline.

  • 12:15:01

    NNAMDIAny advice, Lecester Johnson?

  • 12:15:03

    JOHNSONSure. They can also call D.C. Library's Adult Literacy Resource Center. They have all of the GED books there. It's been difficult right now. That's one of the problems with this pandemic, of course. We can't get out and go to the places that we need. But they have tons of free resources there. And they also have a staff available to help students who need that support. If their interested, if it's someone who's interested in getting their high school credential, please call us up.

  • 12:15:35

    JOHNSONOur applications have just opened. And we are running distance learning programs. We are scaling up. We're preparing for classes to start in the fall on August 17 using a distance learning platform. We've used Zoom, Google classrooms and teachers have used also conference calling to work with their students. So we can see students. We can do interactive white board.

  • 12:16:03

    JOHNSONThe issue is making sure that every learner, who needs access has access. So if it's someone who's interested, certainly our applications open today. We are opening. We are not stopping. We're going to continue to work with our learners and we are doing our best to make sure that every learner, who needs a device has one and has internet access.

  • 12:16:25

    NNAMDISo you mention that people, who are interested, should call you. What's the number that they should call?

  • 12:16:31

    JOHNSONThey can call us at 202-269-6623. And they can also if they're comfortable getting online visit us at and the applications are online. And we can help you if you need assistance. If you're struggling with getting through the application, we will walk through the application with you and help you do it online.

  • 12:16:56

    NNAMDIJimmie Johnson, what does the Washington Literacy Center need to help improve the lives of its students?

  • 12:17:03

    WILLIAMSYou know, for us, we have dedicated staff and materials, but the needs for instructional time, preparation, professional development are real. But more so it is financial assistance. We find that there's still a huge gap. It costs an average of $8,000 per student. So most of our needs have really been met through contributions and donations, and we are TANF TEP provider. But right now essentially, donations of laptops and computers and always funding. And funding from -- and allocations from government and private entities help immensely.

  • 12:17:42

    NNAMDIRobin Barr, the majority of your students are female. Why do you think that is?

  • 12:17:46

    BARRWell, one reason is that they are the ones who are getting the TEP assistance. For my English language learners, they are the ones who -- when they were in their home countries were not permitted to go to school unlike their brothers. So I have one student, who is 60 and her -- this is the first time she has ever been in a classroom, and she was so excited. She's from Sierra Leone from Africa. And she was still afraid that her brother would find out that she was in school and would keep her from coming to school. So I'm not going to say anything more about her. But it's been a wonderful experience for her.

  • 12:18:33

    NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that story. Chez called in to ask, "I was intrigued by today's segment and would like to help. How can I join an adult literacy program or an option program as a volunteer?" Jimmie Williams.

  • 12:18:47

    WILLIAMSThat's easy. You can reach us at 202-387-9029 or you can email or look at our website at WASH,, And we do need volunteers.

  • 12:19:05

    NNAMDIWe got a tweet from David, "Good to hear from your listener about the value of audiobooks. Libraries are here for adult learners. DCPL's online book collection is full of audiobooks." That's at the D.C. Public Library. That, of course, means if you have internet access if you have a computer then you'll be able to access them. Lecester Johnson, do you have adequate funding to reach your school's goals? We talked about your rigorous fundraising that you've been doing.

  • 12:19:33

    JOHNSONNo, short answer, because the real issue is I think as many education providers across the country have found that to go to 100 percent online what it takes to scale up to that requires an additional investment. We are right now looking at an additional investment of over a half a million dollars to ensure that at least 400 students if they need them have an adequate device, and also paying for internet access. We know that there were a number of providers who are offering free services or very low cost services. But when you think about the students that we're serving who are now unemployed who even when they were employed who are underemployed paying those low cost. Even nine dollars is a huge hurdle for a number of people, and that's something that we don't always think of.

  • 12:20:32

    JOHNSONI've heard people say, "Nine dollars, it's so little," particularly with Comcast essential skills. It's a lot for some people. And what we're trying to do is bridge that cost for those learners. We don't want any barrier to keep a person from achieving the goals that they've set for themselves, because as Jimmie mentioned adults without a high school diploma, right now we know already have the highest unemployment.

  • 12:20:58

    JOHNSONThey're typically the first to go and the last to rehire. And as we start to move into this recovery, the work starts now to help those adults to get back to where they were before this pandemic came -- before this pandemic happened. So we need to make that investment. And we are fundraising. We are looking to partner with corporations. I'm sure Jimmie is doing the same thing to get people the tools they need to continue working towards their goals.

  • 12:21:26

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's -- I'm sorry. But that's about all the time we have. We are out of time. Lecester Johnson, Jimmie Williams and Robin Barr, thank you all for joining us. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, it will be Kojo for Kids with Author Judith Viorst. Adults can listen, but only kids can join the conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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