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Libraries scramble to fund literacy programs

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A grant that has provided funding for literacy programs in Delta County for nearly 20 years has dried up. The lack of funding has Delta County Libraries scrambling for ways to compensate the eight qualified individuals who teach English language acquisition and high school equivalency classes in Delta and Hotchkiss.

"This is a serious blow to us and Delta County as it will certainly harshly limit the services we can offer through our adult literacy program," said Tracy Ihnot, communications and outreach administrator for Delta County Libraries.

Both programs are offered free of charge, with operational costs covered nearly 100 percent by the federally-funded grant administered by the Colorado Department of Education. This year's grant totaled $167,442; an application for fiscal year 2017-18 requested $150,000.

Gail Srebnik, Delta County Libraries literacy administrator, said the library district's application scored high enough to be funded, yet it wasn't. That's got her, and other rural library districts, questioning the funding process. "If we scored high enough to be funded, why aren't we being funded?"

"Since rural counties have not recovered from the recent economic downturn as well as urban counties, it is hard to understand the change in priorities after almost 20 years," said district director Lea Hart.

The library district quickly filed an appeal, citing program requirements that the Colorado Department of Education consider "regional needs ... serving individuals in the community who were ... in most need of adult education of literacy activities" when awarding grants.

According to CDE's adult education department, "The overall priority of the adult education and literacy grant program is to ensure service to currently underserved or underserved areas of the state."

Delta County Libraries began a literacy program in the early 1990s. In the early years, volunteers were trained and then paired one-on-one with adults looking to improve their literacy. In 1999, the Colorado Department of Education launched its grant program. Those funds enabled Delta County Libraries to expand classes for adults looking to acquire the English language, as well as adults who wanted to qualify for high school equivalency diplomas.

Currently, 44 adults are working toward their high school equivalency diploma. "We also have about 40 adults currently working to improve their English language skills," Srebnik said. "Yearly we average 100 to 120 adults in our classes."

Students are a mix of ethnicities and ages, ranging from 18-year-old high school dropouts to 60-year-old ranchers. One woman from Iran studied English with the goal of passing her written driving test.

Srebnik says there are a lot of questions concerning the funding formula. "We've learned that a vast majority of the funding was awarded to urban, Front Range programs and very little was awarded to rural, western regions," Srebnik said. "This is a definite shift from previous years. "We've been spending a lot of time trying to get answers. "I believe if our application scored high enough to be funded, we should have been funded, even at a reduced rate."

The library district operates on a very lean budget and can not afford to cover the cost of the program, Srebnik added. The only ray of hope at this time is Delta Health & Human Services, which has lent support to literacy programs.

"Delta County Health & Human Services hopes to increase funding to help in some way, and for that we are very grateful," Srebnik said. "Two of our teachers have also agreed to cut their hours so we will be able to continue the high school equivalency classes, and hopefully the distance learning component.

"I don't know if it's possible to turn things around [with the grant]," Srebnik said, "but Delta County has no other option, or means, for providing services to our residents."

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