Literacyworks Center in Petaluma helps low-income students build confidence

As of fall 2022, Literacyworks Center alumni have a total of 22 associate degrees, 17 transfers to universities, 78 certificates and 67 GED completions.|

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When Leticia Garcia Arango started classes at both Santa Rosa Junior College’s campuses in 2016, she had little direction.

“I didn't have a major. I didn't know what I was doing,” the 24-year-old Petaluma resident said. “I wanted to go to a four-year college, but I just didn't know how it worked.”

That all changed two years later when she became a client of the Literacyworks Center.

Registered with the California Department of Education as a professional development center, the Literacyworks organization has provided support for adult education since 1995. Established in partnership with SRJC on the Petaluma campus in 2015, the center offers personal and financial assistance to underserved adult learners to help them identify and achieve their educational goals. Of the 110 or so students the program accepts each semester, 90% are Latino.

Garcia Arango, who attended Casa Grande High School, entered SRJC as an ESL (English as a Second Language) learner because she tested below the college-ready level in English.

Due to the extra support she received from the Literacyworks Center, she was able to complete an associate degree with honors from SRJC in 2019, then transferred to University of California, Los Angeles where she majored in sociology and minored in Chicano Studies. She’s first generation, and the first of five siblings in her family to graduate from college.

Now the Literacyworks Center alumna works part-time for the nonprofit organization to assist ESL learners whose primary language is Spanish. In addition to translation services, she helps new students navigate the educational system and connect with on-campus resources — from the food pantry to the Dream Center, which provides free immigration legal services for undocumented students.

When the Literacyworks Center Director Chris Schultz learned Garcia Arango had returned to the area and was hired at SRJC as a part-time program assistant at the college’s Extended Opportunity Program and Services, he reached out and offered her a job for a new position with the Literacyworks Center in November. She now helps parenting students as a CalWORKS adviser in addition to working 10 hours per week for the Literacyworks Center. She has offices in both Santa Rosa and Petaluma, where she splits her time between campuses.

Schultz calls Garcia Arango “a dynamo.” He points out that her educational goals went against the odds, as only about 2% of students in the program get an associate degree. He added, her motivation and drive was “outstanding from day one.”

Petaluma program uplifts local students

In 2016, a family foundation in Sonoma County pledged $200,000 per year to the Literacyworks Center, earmarked solely for student scholarships. Program participants received Adult Literacy Awards of $1,000 per semester and students who have a child under 17, get $1,500. The funds cover expenses such as books, transportation, childcare or anything that might hinder the student’s access to an education.

"This semester, we have 83 (students who received Adult Literacy Awards) as of this morning. And there's no question that we can get more than 110,“ Schulz said in January. ”We now have a waiting list .... At this point in our program, we want to serve the students who are serious, self-directed, hopefully have children who will be inspired and go on. Our job is to support them, have their back, and make sure that they stay in college."

Literacyworks Executive Director Paul Heavenridge said the organization has provided $1,459,601 in Adult Literacy Awards scholarships to over 1,394 low-income and low-literacy students in Sonoma County.

To be eligible, learners must qualify as low-income and initially test below college level in reading, writing and math. Unlike most scholarship programs, there’s no requirement to take a minimum number of units at SRJC, whether that’s a non-credit ESL course or a computer class — anything that gets students through the door.

Success is measured by each individual.

For instance, one woman took business classes so she could start her own catering company. Another, a widow with two children, gained the confidence to start her own cleaning business.

The Literacyworks Center has a less than 10% dropout rate each semester, far below the national average. Approximately 60% of incoming first-year students don't typically make it through the first semester or two of community college and the retention rate has plummeted since the pandemic.

As of fall 2022, the Literacyworks Center alumni have a total of 22 associate degrees, 17 transfers to universities, 78 certificates and 67 GED completions.

“It has proven itself as a model program,” said retired Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, an honorary board member. Rep. Woolsey also steers Friends of the Center, a volunteer group that promotes and publicizes Literacyworks programs. She calls it “the perfect thing to become involved in” following her resignation from Congress in 2013.

Someone to advocate for you

Schultz said the center, which operates with a small staff, does not solicit applications. When the program began, the first 25 learners to receive Adult Literacy Awards were childcare workers from early childhood education programs, most of whom did not hold college degrees. The next year they had 75 participants.

Now the organization does outreach at sites like Tomales Elementary School, where many parents work on ranches and attend evening classes at the SRJC campuses. Referrals also come from community partners such as the federally-funded High School Equivalency Program, which helps migratory and seasonal farmworkers gain employment or begin post-secondary education.

“It blows me away,” said Heavenridge, who also serves as the Sonoma County Library commissioner for Petaluma. “I didn’t have that kind of stamina and I had all the privileges you can imagine.”

For the students who rely on the program, having an advocate is key to their success.

“Sometimes you just need one person to believe in you,” said Garcia Arango, who credits her success with the personal connections she made. “ ... I was really well connected. I had a whole village”

She said Schultz and Literacyworks Executive Administrator Rita Sorpranith are on the list of allies who had a huge impact on her education.

In addition to utilizing Extended Opportunity Program and Services at SRJC, and the learning community the Puente Project while she was a student, Garcia Arango held a job as a student success coach and learned from the supervisors who mentored her.

About the Literacyworks Center

Established in 2015, the Literacyworks Center goal is to ensure that all individuals have the skills, support and opportunities to thrive in a complex and inter-connected world. The organization advocates and addresses the needs of local residents with low literacy skills.

As of fall 2022, the Literacyworks Center alumni have a total of 22 associate degrees, 17 transfers to universities, 78 certificates and 67 GED completions. The program has also provided $1,459,601 in Adult Literacy Awards scholarships to over 1,394 low-income and low-literacy students in Sonoma County.

Location: 625 Second St., No. 107, Petaluma

More information: 707-981-8086,


Impact goes beyond Sonoma County

Each semester, the Literacyworks Center students are required to see a college counselor and attend two informational workshops the organization offers. Another requirement is that they have a one-on-one interview designed to assess the student needs as well as the program’s impact.

The final question asked during the one-on-one interview with students is: What’s the most important motivation in your life?

According to Schultz, nearly everyone names their family. “I want to be a model for my children so they know the value of education,” he said people often say.

Students are also asked to contribute to Student Voices. Student Voices is a compilation of quotes and stories on the Literacywork Center’s website where students share how the program helped them achieve their goals.

Alumni like Garcia Arango share their stories and hope to inspire others who may question their own ability to succeed. Seeing others in her cohort thrive certainly motivated her.

“It helps you envision it. It's not impossible,” she said. “Yes, it's hard, but it's doable.”

Her younger sister, also an alumna of the Literacyworks Center, will graduate from UC Berkeley in June. They both encouraged their older sister to go back to school and attend SRJC. She did and was able to transfer to UC Riverside. Their two younger brothers, in middle school and high school, are already thinking about where to attend college.

Garcia Arango, who graduated from UCLA in 2021, is now determined to pursue a master's degree and a possible career in higher education. In October she won a travel fellowship for first-generation college students interested in the Education Leadership, Organizations, and Entrepreneurship Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she met professors, students and alumni.

“Seeing other people who've done it, who look like me, makes it more attainable,” she said.

Meanwhile, she’s always willing to help others. “Literacyworks did so much for me that the only thing I can do is give it back.”

Sonoma Gives

Read more stories about locals giving back to their communities here.

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