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Sondra Stein"Because we were formed by the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, I think my generation began in adult education with a vision of empowerment—of giving adult learners the tools they need to improve their lives." -Sondra Stein

Throughout nearly 35 years of serving adult learners as a teacher, policy maker, and administrator, Sondra Stein has been motivated by a group of women she hasn't seen in nearly as many years. She calls them her "touchstone."

Name: Dawn Brown
Address: Good Counsel Homes, NY
Question: I loved your Bio. I am a Sr. Case Manager for Good Counsel Homes. We are a residential program for pregnant and parenting women. All are here for various reasons but a common denominator is lack of education. I am very interested in an in house literacy/GED program. The total immersion format that you have had success with seems key to me, any suggestions on where to begin would be greatly received.
Thank You
Dawn Brown
Good Counsel Homes
Answer: Dear Dawn,
I am so glad you enjoyed my story. I am especially glad to hear that you were interested in our work at WEAVE. I still think that what we did then was some of the most effective work I have done in literacy and that the total immersion model is extremely useful for anyone trying to make a transition in their lives for two important reasons:
  1. It gives learners enough time on task so that they can progress rapidly. (This is especially important with impatient teens!)

  2. It provides the opportunity for students to really bond with each other and to support each other in making the transition. Social networks have such a profound effect on us ­ they can hold us back or help us move forward. While many women in our class felt pressures to stay the same, to not grow, from their partners and their peers, the other women became their support group, providing encouragement and affirming their choice to grow and change. There is more and more research that confirms this positive effect of a cohort that learns and grows together in supporting change.

The women at WEAVE were by and large in the 22-40 year old range. Our experience was that it was not until women reached the age of 25-6 that they started being ready to make a commitment to turn their lives around. For one year we added a pregnant and parenting teen group, thinking that the older women would be positive role models. What we discovered was that they were very unhappy about having to give up their own special time to focus on helping younger women. Since the older women were our first priority, we discontinued the teen program. But hopefully some of how we structured our program will be useful to you.

Our school day at WEAVE went from 8:30 AM until 2:30-3:00 PM four days a week. The women had one day off to schedule welfare and doctor appointments, etc. Each WEAVE session was 16 weeks. The first two weeks were "orientation." We used this time to get to know each other, to talk about short and long term goals, and how school fit into those goals. We talked about attitudes and expectations about school, what led students to drop out, etc., how this school was different from the schools they went to before. We talked about the rules of the school (No drugs or alcohol, no more than three absences allowed, etc). Throughout the two weeks we included a range of skill assessments, beginning with an application form that included a writing assessment. We also spent some time planning for school. We talked about the things that might get in the way of women coming to school and did some problem-solving and planning for addressing those barriers to success. Finally, we held individual counseling sessions with each of the women, talked about their strengths and weaknesses, based on the assessments, and developed an individual contract with each one. A student was admitted once she signed the contract. A number of programs I know of that still have a open entry format have introduced a similar two week orientation/study skills program that each student must complete before they are placed into the open entry classroom.

We usually admitted 50-60 women each 16 week cycle, assuming that we would lose 20% in the first two weeks before the contract was signed. Students were divided into groups of about 15, based on general skills range (we only had two levels ­ basic and intermediate [above 3rd grade level]). Once a group was put together, the students were in it for the next 14 weeks. Teachers were rotated in (for math, for work readiness) but the group stayed together.

We designed a curriculum framework that was built around the key institutions in a woman’s life ­ family, relationships and marriage, school, church, kids, work, community. I only wish EFF had existed then ­ we would have used the role maps and the standards to provide the framework we trial-and-errored over the course of the first year. In particular, having the interpersonal and problem-solving standards would have added enormously to the rigor and effectiveness of our teaching in these critical areas.

I can’t remember all the details of what we did, but there are a few key things I can share about the structure of the 14 week program.

  1. The first week always began with the group getting to know each other by identifying the key issues in their lives they wanted to learn more about and then negotiating as a group the order in which we would cover these key topics. This gave the students a real sense of ownership of the curriculum and also helped break down the separation most of them assumed between school and real life.

    Usually, child raising/parenting and ‘relationships’ were at the top of everyone’s priority list. Crime and violence usually was pretty high up too. We had assembled a wide range of reading materials to build a foundation in these areas, and built a math curriculum that reflected these contexts. Each group identified ‘projects’ to work on that involved a practical application of the knowledge and skills they were learning in the community. One project I remember focused on childcare. After doing some reading we came up with our own set of criteria for quality family day care. Then we developed a questionnaire and the students went out in pairs and interviewed providers to see whether they met the criteria. Then they created a guide to choosing a day care for their own use, and for the use of other women like themselves.

  2. Each week was structured to include time for reading/research, math, and after the first month, planning/getting ready for work. One afternoon a week we had ‘group,’ ­ a time where the students could just talk about issues in their lives and ask for advice or support. We ended the week with a written and oral evaluation of learning ­ we had an open-ended form we developed which asked questions like:

    1. What was your most important learning this week?
    2. What was hardest for you to learn?
    3. What was easiest?
    4. What do you want to spend more time learning about?
    5. What activity/class did you like best/least? This gave us a developmental record for each student and signaled areas where we needed to improve or at least provide more help to a particular student.

  3. The vocational component, like every other, was developmental. We began with career exploration ­ bringing in panels of women workers in a wide variety of jobs so that the women had a chance to learn about jobs that were in their reach that they had never heard of. We read about different careers, and spent several days job shadowing women to learn more about what work days were like. And then we did some career planning ­ developing long term goals and short term milestones along the way. In the last weeks of the program, we helped women apply for training programs or jobs or internships where they could develop more work experience. After the first year, we had a group of former students who could come back and talk about their experiences as part of this component of the program.

  4. We created occasions to celebrate accomplishments.

  5. Graduates of the 16 week program could come back to a twice a week evening program that we officially ran to help students prepare for a high school diploma but unofficially to provide a place where they could continue to get support as they made the transition to an environment that was less supportive. While we thought about making the program longer, we thought it was important for everyone to have the experience of graduating and moving on. Since TANF now has time limits for education programs, I expect there will be pressure to have even a shorter program. We found that in the 16 weeks most women could improve their skills several grade levels ­ enough to qualify for a next step. Today, we could end the program by awarding the work readiness credential to successful graduates, but back then there was no intermediate credential before the high school diploma.

I’ve enjoyed reconstructing our model for you. Last month, I heard from one of our graduates. In 1980 she was a drug addict who was on methadone, living in a cold water flat with no electricity and no heat. She lost custody of her children. Coming to our program and making progress was the only way she could get them back. Now she has a college degree and works as an HIV Advocate for a mental health center. Her children are grown and married. And she said to me, now, 25 years later, “Thank Heavens for WEAVE, Sondra. It changed my life.”

I once thought I would write a book about WEAVE called The Education of Desire. Writing this for you, made me think that maybe this is the time to do that.

Good luck.
Warm regards,

For more information, please visit the EFF website and EFF Downloadable Masters page.