A recent News-Press article features Susan Acuna, president & CEO of Literacy Council Gulf Coast, and she explains the importance of English literacy in Southwest Florida and around the country.

Newsmaker Q&A with Susan Acuna

Q: What percentage of Lee County residents is non-English speaking? What obstacles might someone, who does not speak English, encounter in their daily or working activities?

According to the U.S. Census, 21.2 percent of Lee County residents speak a language other than English at home. The population for Lee is projected to be 649,801 according to county budget documents. That means nearly 138,000 residents are non-native English speakers. These moms and dads, children and family members encounter obstacles to learning in schools, performing in their jobs, getting promotions, or reaching their personal goals.

Q: What percentage of Lee residents are illiterate? What do you believe are the major contributors for people not learning how to read and write?

This is a difficult number to pin down because being illiterate is not a state of being; it is a location along a learning continuum. National estimates are about 14 percent of the general public struggles with illiteracy. This is a national issue because there is a correlation between illiteracy and poverty. Research shows at-risk and disadvantaged children have heard up to 30 million fewer words than their peers from higher income families. As a result, they have substantially smaller vocabularies and content knowledge than many of their classmates when they begin school. Experts have linked this “word gap” to an “achievement gap,” which unfortunately can persist throughout their lives.

Q: How can we solve illiteracy?

We may never solve illiteracy, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. We believe family literacy, focusing on teaching mothers with their children and fathers with their school aged kids, provides highest return on investment. Literacy is the key that unlocks an individual’s ability to learn. It is more fundamental than just about anything else in life. You can’t reach other personal, educational, or financial goals without being able to read.

Q: At what age should people start making literacy a priority? Is there an age limit at which learning a new language becomes too difficult?

Everyone is different. Our approach focuses on teaching people in the best way with the best possible teachers. Our students have different learning outcomes. Some want to learn how to speak to their daughter’s teacher. Others want to communicate with their boss or get their GED or diploma. We provide personalized education to get people the literacy foundation they will need to succeed.

Q: Are there any special programs you would recommend to people to use or is there a good starting point, such as easy reader books?

Absolutely! We use different resources for different learners. Some come to us without literacy skills in their native language. Others come to us with fairly good literacy skills, but not enough to take the test for their GED or citizenship class. Our program is person-centric and so our recommendations for educational materials are dependent on each person’s needs.

Q: What programs does the council provide you would like to inform the public about?

The council specializes in two model family literacy programs: Carol DeJoy Moms & Tots® Family Literacy for mothers with their young children and Kids+ Lifelong Learning, a partnership with Lee County School District, in which we teach the parents of school children English to help them become more involved with their children’s education and future success. We offer work site literacy programs at nine golf and gated communities in Lee and Collier counties. We offer our program in 16 Title I schools in Lee County, one in Hendry, and we are exploring expansion into Collier schools where need is greatest.

Q: How can businesses and the community support the Literacy Council?

You can support our students by becoming a tutor or volunteer for our council. Businesses can support our students by making referrals to us for employees who may want to pursue their GED, learn English better, or enroll in college. Finally, our residents and business community can continue their support for us financially so we can continue to help our students succeed. For a donation of as little as $200 we are able to teach a student in our program for an entire year.

To recommend a newsmaker email Whitney Ward at wward@news-press.com

  • Susan Acuna
  • Career: President & CEO, Literacy Council Gulf Coast
  • Family: Husband: Miguel Acuna; children: Jessica and Jordan Merritt
  • Birthplace: Hammond, Indiana
  • Education: Master of Social Work (MSW); BA, Human Development in the Family – Indiana University

Awards and Recognition:

Literacy Council Gulf Coast (LCGC) was formed in 1989. This year marks their 25th anniversary of providing free instruction for adults in reading and writing, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) through the Carol DeJoy Moms & Tots® Family Literacy and Kids+ programs, GED preparation tutoring, citizenship classes, financial literacy, and technology literacy for disadvantaged young people. The Council is the largest nonprofit literacy agency in the United States according to ProLiteracy America.

Susan Acuna, President and CEO of LCGC, has become a thought leader in the new model for literacy program development and education. She is:

» 2013 Indiana University School of Social Work Distinguished Alumna Award

» ProLiteracy America National Presenter, October 2013, Washington DC.

» Florida Literacy Coalition Presenter, February, 2014