Since 1983, Catholics have served the community by reaching out to immigrants, those with learning disabilities and those needing some extra reading help with the literacy program, Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services.

Catholics will retain a major presence as a merger between the two largest community-based organizations providing adult education programs in Southeastern Wisconsin. On July 1, Literacy Services of Wisconsin (LSW) and Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services (MALS) will combine operations to expand their reach to students and increase job readiness for those in need.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy estimates that two in five adults read at or below the 4th grade level. Milwaukee is the second most impoverished city in America, the most segregated U.S. city, and the home of the highest black male incarceration rate; and providing superior adult literacy education is imperative to help at-risk adults find better jobs and become productive members of their communities.

Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services was founded after the presidents of Alverno College, Cardinal Stritch University and Mount Mary University responded to “Milwaukee 2000,” a study that revealed one in six of the city’s adults were functionally illiterate.

“Members of the School Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi and the School Sisters of Notre Dame collaborated with educators and volunteers to build and support Milwaukee Achiever’s mission, and their support continues today,” said Duiven.

Literacy Services of Wisconsin is a leading provider of adult education since 1965, operating under the mission “to educate, motivate and inspire engaged adults to achieve greater independence and transform their lives,” explained Ginger Duiven, LSW executive director.

“The organization was founded when members of First Congregational Church of Wauwatosa, Christ Presbyterian Church and North Shore Congregational Church heard an international literacy leader issue a call to start an adult literacy program in Wisconsin,” she said. “Today, it uses a proven-effective, one-on-one model of instruction that matches each student with a specially trained tutor to ensure that teaching is individualized, meaningful and successful.”

The merger addresses three key issues to meet the needs of the more than 1,200 adults they serve each year: higher demand for services than the local marketplace delivers, complexity of student needs and increasing competition for philanthropic and government funding along with rising expectations of those funders.

“Additionally, both MALS and LSW needed to address changes to the new operating environment, including recently revised GED tests and the implementation of the new federal law, the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, which provides a new framework to build on the power of collaboration and innovation to improve and develop the Wisconsin workforce,” said Duiven. “The merger of the two strongest community-based adult literacy organizations means that together we will create stronger programs and a stronger organization by taking advantages of complementary expertise developed over the years by each organization. Those who use our program will find a team of experts in a wide variety of programs ready to partner with them to meet their goals of education, training and workforce preparation.”

As the executive director of the combined organization, which will retain the name Literacy Services of Wisconsin, Inc., Duiven explained that the merger will produce several benefits, such as more cost-efficient operations with the duplicated roles of Executive Director, Development Director and Accountant eliminated.

“Each organization has complementary strengths, so our community will benefit from bringing those strengths together for the benefit of our wide range of adult students,” she said. “We have complimentary revenue generating skills and relationships that will add value to the combined effort as well. We will operate in six locations, making access to programs easier for students for whom transportation and time are a potential barrier to participation.”

A couple of drawbacks to the merger are the added workload and expense associated with integrating the literacy programs and streamlining the operations.

“Fortunately, we see this as a mutually beneficial opportunity to revisit our processes, take advantage of current technology and create a refreshed operating platform as a result of this work,” explained Duiven.

With just 58 percent of Milwaukee’s high school students graduating each year, the 42 percent that don’t graduate experience high-rates of low-wage employment and unemployment, placing their families on the edge of financial security. Duiven explained that approximately 20 percent of the population have learning issues, such as Dyslexia, and urban school systems are rarely equipped to provide services required to overcome these challenges.

“The underlying literacy issues that have persisted in our community for decades often lead to new generations of adults with learning deficits,” she said. “Since a parent is a child’s teacher, if that teacher is suffering from a literacy deficit or a language barrier, the child has a high chance of struggling with his or her own education.”