Leaders in Literacy: Study.com Speaks With the Director of SCALE

Oct 11, 2010

The Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education (SCALE), based at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, organizes and supports student-run literacy programs at colleges nationwide. Study.com recently caught up with Executive Director Megan McCurley to speak about literacy challenges in the U.S. and what college students can do to help.

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By Megan Driscoll

Megan McCurley Executive Director of SCALE

Megan McCurley

Study.com: Please tell us a little bit about yourself and the history of SCALE. How was the organization founded, how did you get involved and what's your own background in literacy and/or education?

Megan McCurley: Scale was founded in 1989 by two undergrads who were working here at UNC through the Campus Y, which is the student-led social justice organization that's been here on campus for 150 years. Program founders Clay Thorpe and Lisa Madry were working with a group called Project Literacy, which also still exists. They realized that there was not really any support for college-aged students interested in doing literacy work.

It's difficult to try and teach someone to read without any training. So to be sure that they were doing good work when they were offering services to the community, Clay and Lisa started SCALE as a national network for campus-based and youth-led literacy organizations.

I joined SCALE as director of the Learning to Teach, Learning to Serve program, which was a service learning and teacher education program that we ran for four years. I then took over over as Executive Director of SCALE in 2009.

My background was originally in teacher education at NYU. I also did America Reads as an undergrad and worked in public schools as a teaching assistant all throughout school. After teaching for a year I became frustrated by public schools and went back to college for anthropology in education, which was more focused on cultural studies around education.

I then worked for two years in a community-based adult education organization similar to SCALE at Columbia. Called Community Impact, it also focuses on student-led, student-run adult education programs.

Study.com: SCALE's mission focuses on the 'literacy needs of this country.' Can you tell our readers more about literacy issues in America for both young people and adults?

MM: The last data from the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which is from 2003, basically said that about 14% of adults in the U.S. lack even basic literacy skills. Those percentages go up to around 20% for African Americans, and I think it's as high as 39% for Hispanic adults. And these statistics are generally thought to be low because people very rarely report low literacy skills.

There's also a problem with ongoing low levels of literacy in elementary schools. We actually just wrote a grant for one of the local elementary schools here. The number of students passing reading tests was only about 52% - the average is 50% to 55% for North Carolina. Barely half of students are passing their reading exams.

Ultimately, literacy scores haven't really improved in the United States in spite of the amount of free and low-cost education that is theoretically available. So we just still need a lot of support everywhere, especially for low-income and minority groups that still tend to be on the very, very low end of the average.

Study.com: What are some of SCALE's current projects?

MM: Our newest initiative is called the Read. Write. Act. Virtual Learning Community. This is a new initiative funded by Verizon that we piloted last spring and are getting off the ground in full form this year.

SCALE has always done training and technical assistance for campuses around the country, but as budgets have gotten tighter and the economy continues to waver, finding grants for these kinds of programs has become more and more difficult. So we've been looking for more low cost ways to reach out to campuses and to help them network with each other.

We used to have to travel to do training, and with the Virtual Learning Community we're now working entirely online. We use webinar software such as Illuminate, which a lot of campuses are utilizing for online courses, so it's pretty familiar to students. This enables us to do a lot of resource sharing and training and networking; we can also put different campus-based groups in contact with each other. With the support of my staff, these groups are building Wikis together, using Facebook and taking advantage of free and low-cost online resources to work with each other.

We also run a statewide AmeriCorps program called the NC Literacy Core Engage. Last year we had 12 campus and community-based sites around the state, and I believe this year we're up to 14. We place AmeriCorps members at each of the literacy program sites to help support volunteer recruitment, training and technical assistance and general program management. We also have a very strong focus on helping to recruit college students to those organizations.

Some of the sites that we're working with this year include Sand Hills Community College and Alamance Community College. We're also working with the Durham Literacy Center, the Wade County Literacy Council and the Orange County Literacy Council.

AmeriCorps Volunteer with SCALE

SCALE AmeriCorps volunteer at the Orange County Literacy Council

Study.com: SCALE has linked a network of campus-based literacy projects across the country. Can you detail the type of support that SCALE offers these groups?

MM: We do a little bit of everything. We focus primarily on program management for small community-based or campus-based organizations. So we do a lot of work around topics like volunteer recruitment, management and support and leadership. We also provide support for transitions in leadership, which is a big issue for campus-based groups because there's a lot of turnover with student volunteers and leaders.

In addition, we provide a lot of support for small organizations as they create and implement program evaluation models that can help ensure they're doing high quality work and growing their organizations and programs.

And then we also do a lot of support for actual literacy teaching and techniques. We use a lot of different research-based resources that we've collected over the years and we offer a database of these resources that people can access through our website. They can go there to easily find many different resources regarding good literacy practice.

Study.com: Does SCALE itself or any of its members participate in hands-on literacy education?

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MM: We actually run the UNC America Reads Program, under which the federal government will cover 100% of work study funds for college students to tutor elementary school kids. So what we do is hire students that receive federal work study from the university and place them in elementary schools doing literacy tutoring here in Chapel Hill.

Our program was actually designed by the literacy faculty here at UNC. It was created with a strong program evaluation model and a really specific tutoring model that was developed by the faculty. The tutors receive about 18 hours of training over the course of the year, and they all work in schools at least two days a week providing basic literacy tutoring to elementary school kids.

That's one of the ways that we're doing direct service work. Of course, one of the big components of AmeriCorps is direct service, so all the AmeriCorps members engage in direct literacy instruction during at least some part of their day.

Study.com: Please tell us about the national literacy events that SCALE sponsors and promotes, including Read. Write. Act. and National Literacy Action Week. Where can our readers go to learn more about getting involved with these events?

MM: Until two years ago, Read. Write. Act was a face-to-face conference that brought together college students, program managers, campus administrators and a lot of different people involved in literacy education work. But because of costs, and to be more green, we've gone virtual with it, which now makes it incredibly low cost and much more accessible to student groups who don't necessarily have travel budgets. In fact, we just finished the call for proposals for that event, and we'll probably be announcing registration in the next couple of weeks. (Ed's note: Visit ReadWriteAct.org to learn more about registering for the conference, which is currently free.)

The conference covers a range of topics around literacy instruction techniques, program management and volunteer management as well as exemplary program design. People operating great programs will come and talk about how they made them work and give some good models and examples for other participants to use.

National Literacy Action Week is connected with the anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, and so its focus is more around literacy and social justice. Each year we run different initiatives to support campus groups who want to do advocacy and education work to draw attention to national literacy issues. Last year we offered $100 mini-grants to program activities that would involve members of students' campuses and communities in different activities. Locally, we usually organize a couple of different activities on campus.

Study.com: Many of our readers are college students who may be interested in promoting literacy activism on their campus. Can you tell them how they might access SCALE's resources?

MM: We offer resources to campus-based groups in a number of different ways through all of these national events. We always include a one-day webinar as a part of the Read. Write. Act conference and we also do a leadership conference in April, which is open to national campus-based groups. These events are all still currently free.

We also offer memberships, and it's through membership that you can become a part of the virtual learning community, which is another way for campus-based groups to get access to a full range of training and resources. There's information on the website about becoming a member, and we always encourage groups to get in touch with us. There is a cost for membership, but we're usually flexible about it depending on kind of the needs of the organization and their ability to come up with the funding.

Study.com: Finally, I'd like to give you this opportunity to share any further information you'd like about SCALE, your organization's mission and literacy in the United States.

MM: We're celebrating our 20th anniversary with a big event coming up on October 16th. We're having a three-day conference in partnership with the Campus Y, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The conference features a huge number of speakers as well as different events and activities.

Other than that, the main point is that the purpose of SCALE is to support campus-based organizations in whatever way we can. We're always looking for partnerships and different ways that we can support student groups, so we really encourage campus-based groups who are looking for partners or support to get in touch with us.

Find out more about SCALE at ReadWriteAct.org or on Facebook under SCALE and @ReadWriteAct on Twitter.

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