Literacy Bitterroot has served almost 4,000 students since it's inception in 1987, and is celebrating 30 years of programming on Friday.
Dixie Stark, executive director, said the program is no longer under the Montana Office of Public Instruction, but a community-based organization providing locally controlled and accessed services.
She said Literacy Bitterroot has taken a shift of services to provide more than an endpoint for high school education. When Literacy Bitterroot started, the program tutored adults who wanted to learn to read.
“Now we do reading, math, language, social studies, and help those who want to prepare for college,” Stark said. “In the past ,if you had a high school diploma we couldn’t provide services to you, but now we can. If you have a high school diploma but forgot everything you were supposed to know about algebra and you want to go to college, this is the right place to come.
"We can help people brush up or remember what they never learned before.”
Stark said Literacy Bitterroot has always been more than a reading program. It's a place that figures out what the barriers to success are for students, and tries to help.
Literacy Bitterroot partners closely with Bitterroot College to provide a smooth transition to employment. Many of the Literacy Bitterroot graduates have taken the Certified Nursing Assistant or Commercial Driver’s License programs and will take the Certified Medical Assistant program coming up.
“We are expanding opportunities so students can get on that health care career ladder,” Stark said. “It is about the only career ladder we have here where students can eventually work up to a professional wage without leaving the community. In the many years we operated before the college was here there wasn’t much of a stepping stone - graduates had to leave the community to go to school. It makes a lot of difference having that access.”
The program has served 3,894 students, but Stark said she doesn’t think of numbers but of individuals.
A month ago she had a random encounter with a student whose primary goal was to get his driver’s license, which he did through Literacy Bitterroot’s help.
“He was preparing to drive to the veteran’s hospital in Salt Lake to get his father,” Stark said. “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You do understand that without you I would be so lost now - my mom is dead, my dad is dying, and I would have been simply a kid who was terrified if you hadn’t helped me.’ We talk about numbers and helping students graduate but holding their hands the day after their mother dies is part of what we do too.”
She said at Literacy Bitterroot the students are more like family, due to small classrooms, teachers who bond quickly, and some students having a tough home life or are homeless.
Stark recalled a graduate who was injured and needed to be retrained for a new career to work with his head instead of his hands. She told him it would be okay because he's smart, but he responded that he was scared.
“He had a house here and wanted to live in the valley," she said. "We talked about the resources we had, employment opportunities in the valley, and his soft skills of being able to relate well with people. His future will be drawn with the future brush; we never know what will happen.”
Students tend to be older at Literacy Bitterroot. Stark recalled one student completing his testing the week before he turned 70. He had run his own business,but retired and wanted to take on-line classes for his own personal enjoyment. He wasn't allowed to because he didn’t have a high school diploma.
“We helped him get one and I’m sure he’s out there studying what he wanted to learn about.," Stark said. "It is good to help people who want to learn for personal reasons as well as for employment.”
Stark said the high school equivalency test is more difficult these days than in the past.
“The test tries to measure the equivalent of a high school education, and what we expect of people when they get out of high school is different than what it was 20 years ago,” she said. “Especially in math and college prep curriculum.”
The Literacy Bitterroot has undergone many transitions. In the fall of 1987 the Bitterroot Public Library started the Literacy Volunteers of America Bitterroot program as a grant under the Kellogg Foundation. Two years later, Stark joined the program as a volunteer tutor. In 1991, she was hired to coordinate the program. In 1996, it became a separate program housed in the Bitterroot Public Library with more flexibility in seeking funding. In 2002, Literacy Bitterroot moved into the Human Resource Council building.
“It was a really good fit for the program because 80 percent of the students we serve are less than 200 percent of poverty level,” Stark said. “A lot of the people we served were already receiving other services in the same building; for instance, there’s an educational component to the youth employment program.”
In 2016, Literacy Bitterroot moved into 303 No. Third St. and underwent a year of remodeling. A change of grant application rules made them ineligible for the usual funding and the Rob and Terry Ryan Foundation granted them the money the covers about half the needs. The program still does fundraising and this year has scholarships to pay for all student testing, thanks to the Ryan's foundation.
Literacy Bitterroot offers tutoring in Stevensville, Corvallis, Darby, and Hamilton.
“In Darby we serve people individually. We don’t have enough students to have a class,” Stark said. “We have an agreement with the school district.”
Literacy Bitterroot has paid and volunteer tutors and a low turnover rate.
“We are working on serving for three generations of students,” Stark said. “We’ve had parents and their child graduate with us, so now we’re looking forward to three generations of success.
"Not everyone operates on the same timeline. Sometimes people have reasons they have to take a time out from their education – financial, medical, or family. We’re here to help when people are ready.”
The Literacy Bitterroot 30th Anniversary Celebration and Grand Re-Opening is from 3 to 5:30 p.m. on Friday at 303 No. Third in Hamilton. For more information, visit online literacybitterroot.org.