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Second Start at Oakland Public Library

by Amy Prevedel on March 19, 2013

In the early 1990s, I was working at an adult literacy program on Chicago’s South Side at a social service agency called the Blue Gargoyle. Our office was located on the attic level of a beautiful old church adorned, as many of the neighborhood’s buildings were, with neo-gothic ornamentation. Funded primarily through the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, our program later added funds from the State Board of Education. It is fair to say we operated on a shoestring budget. Too many stories abound regarding copier paper squirreled away for emergency use only, and so on. On our bookshelves, we had some treasures though: copies of the Oakland Readers series.  Oakland Readers were—and still are—an excellent resource for adult literacy students, volunteer tutors, and anyone else interested in reading compelling stories from the lives of people who have learned to read and write as adults. So it was twenty years ago that I had my first glimpse of the Oakland (Calif.) Public Library’s (OPL) adult literacy program, Second Start.

Fast-forward two decades and by a circuitous route through many jobs, experiences, and locations, I now live in Oakland and am the coordinator of the Second Start program. Most striking to me upon moving to California in 1996 were the resources available to library-based adult literacy programs and the culture of adult learner involvement that permeated these programs. Project Read, our program in North San Mateo County, had many shades of colored paper on hand—all the time! On a level deeper than office supplies, however, was a culture of innovation and creativity that was apparent in programs throughout the Bay Area. Library literacy practitioners were researching, creating, and publishing materials with and for participants in their volunteer-based programs. They had the opportunity to envision and implement a variety of models of teaching and learning; they worked with marginalized people through partnership and leadership development. The design of literacy services included the voices of the adults being served—adult literacy students. The Oakland Readers series demonstrates this ethos.

The structure that comes with being a library program made a world of difference in supporting this vibrancy, and continues to make sense on many levels. Libraries represent a neutral, safe territory in a community and come complete with a culture of lifelong learning, guaranteed confidentiality, and a wealth of materials. Everyone who walks through the door has the potential to learn—there is no “us and them,” and it is nobody else’s business what you’ve come to the library to learn more about. Libraries are committed to providing access to information, and increased literacy skills can make lifelong learning a reality for people who did not learn to read and write as well as they wanted through the traditional route of schooling. Being at the library is a chance to redefine adult learning: The library is not a school for big people who didn’t succeed; instead, it’s a resource for ongoing learning for everyone, regardless of where you fall on the continuum of skills.

Some History of California Library Literacy Services

Second Start was one of the original library-based literacy programs in California. In 1983, State Librarian Gary Strong had the vision to bring adult literacy programs to libraries in California in order to serve people who were not served anywhere else in the community and to expand access to libraries and their many resources. To avoid duplicating already-available adult education services and stave off potential turf battles, the state library worked with the California Department of Education and with community stakeholders to identify adults—English-proficient adults who were not equipped with basic skills to succeed in classroom-based settings—who were not served anywhere else. Strong hired Al Bennett, an adult literacy organizer from Pennsylvania, to use what were then called LSCA (now LSTA) funds to design and implement library literacy programs, and these funds started flowing in 1984. The effects of Proposition 13, a major anti-tax measure passed in California in 1978, were being felt strongly by public institutions at the time. Strong demonstrated vital leadership in the face of criticism from some members of the library community who felt it was not a good time to start something new when libraries were suffering financially as they were.

In a move that helped programs take root and garner local community support, planners at the state library, knowledgeable about many possible models of adult literacy education—some more politically radical than others—held out an “each one teach one” program design. The involvement of community volunteers integral to one-on-one tutoring helped generate buy-in for library literacy programs throughout the state, since most literacy volunteers tend to love their library and can also be quite vocal in their support. Volunteers who had the opportunity to work with adult literacy students helped advocate for and stabilize literacy services as a library function. In 1989, the state legislature with bipartisan effort and support, passed the California Library Services Act, putting language for library-based literacy programs into law. This move stabilized state library matching money for programs for decades to come.

Funding Challenges

In 2011–12, in the throes of massive budget problems in the state of California, funding for California State Library programs was eliminated from the budget. For the first time since 1984, adult literacy programs received no financial support from the state library. This loss of matching funds threatened Second Start’s family literacy programming and computer learning lab. Fortunately, OPL leadership put out funds to see these services function through the remainder of the 2012 fiscal year. Some literacy programs in California closed down, however, and others reduced to an alarming degree the number of students they could serve.

Then, the governor pitched a 2012–13 budget that greatly reduced the state library budget and did not include any funding for public libraries. In a turn of events that seems nothing short of a miracle given the dire financial straits of the state of California, $4.7 million was restored to the 2012–13 budget, with $2.82 of that distributed among library literacy programs. California Library Association (CLA) lobbyists Mike Dillon and Christina DiCaro worked tirelessly to get political support to put money back in the budget. Hundreds and hundreds of library supporters, including adult literacy learners and volunteer tutors, wrote letters to members of the senate and assembly budget subcommittees. Our regional network of library literacy program providers in the Bay Area worked together to contribute to this letter-writing campaign, with our network leaders coordinating with CLA lobbying efforts. Students and tutors told their compelling stories to lawmakers at budget subcommittee hearings in Sacramento. Staff people contributed their personal time to this effort since direct political advocacy on work time is inappropriate. Adult literacy students are natural, effective participants in advocacy efforts like this one. One of the main purposes of adult literacy education is to have a voice in the world and to be taken seriously in more and more social contexts. Learning about the issues, writing letters, speaking in public, being able to advocate for your point of view, and influencing public policy to support your own interests are all activities that strengthen that voice. Ultimately, a unanimous, bipartisan vote in these subcommittees restored the money back into the budget. It was an example of how democracy can work when people take the time to voice their interests. The way library users, literacy program participants included, responded to this budget crisis paints a picture of how literacy programs are part and parcel of larger library workings and interests.

Funding for Second Start, like all other library services, comes from OPL which is a department of the City of Oakland. The program also has a solid base of donors and the capacity to work with library administration on outside grant sources. The state library uses a formula that matches locally raised funds, taking into account a number of measures including the size of each program. Most all of Second Start’s library funding comes from Measure Q, a dedicated parcel tax for OPL passed with overwhelming support in 2004 to stabilize library services for years to come. Measure Q itself has become a real lifesaver for library services these past several years, as the general economy has slumped and finances in Oakland have taken a beating.

In 2011, Second Start was pegged for outright elimination, along with fourteen of the seventeen branch libraries in the OPL system. One budget balancing idea on the table in city hall proposed cutting general funds to OPL below the minimum amount legally necessary to allow for the collection of the Measure Q parcel tax. The budget would have gone from $24 million to $4 million. Library supporters in Oakland came out in droves to city council meetings, and library users, library friends groups, and OPL staff people—once again on their own time—devised a savvy campaign to publicize the issue and to organize advocacy efforts to save the library. Second Start supporters, including adult learners and volunteers, appeared at awareness-raising events and at city council meetings along with library supporters of every other stripe imaginable. In a by-the-skin-of-the-teeth decision, major cuts to library services (including the closure of Second Start) were avoided. Looking back to the beginning of library literacy programs, the voices and advocacy work of literacy students and community volunteers continue to be a bedrock of support and survival.

The integration of literacy programs into libraries has become part of the physical architecture of buildings. I have worked in library basements and closets, but as new libraries are built, they often feature built-in literacy program space. The Second Start program moved into some new space in 2012. While the main library in downtown Oakland is not a new building (then-Governor Earl Warren sat on its front steps at the library’s dedication in 1951), our library leadership planned and saw through the construction of dedicated space for Second Start. Our new digs include classroom space, a computer learning lab, new furniture, windows all around, and a view of Lake Merritt. Recently, California State Library Programs Consultant Carla Lehn said that, “In California, we have successfully integrated these programs so libraries see them as core services that are part of what libraries do.”1 Being housed in a specially designed, centralized location at OPL physically embodies this sentiment.

Second Start’s journey from the main library in the early-1980s back to the main library in 2012 has been action packed. The program’s adventures have dovetailed with the general health of the field of adult literacy education. By the time the California State Library made LSCA money available in 1984, OPL had already experimented with adult literacy services for several years. A staff person dedicated a few hours each week to a volunteer program that operated out of a box containing the names and numbers of students and tutors. The program started with nothing, but hung in there and steadily picked up steam from the mid-1980s and into the early 2000s. Talented leadership and a wide variety of competitive grants and donors solidified Second Start’s financial health and capacity to serve more and more students. The program moved out of the library building in 1989 to downtown office spaces in order to accommodate an ever-growing number of adult learners.

Adult literacy was popular in those years and enjoyed support from the media, elected officials, and funders. The National Literacy Act passed in 1991, adding an agency dedicated to adult literacy, the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL), to the panoply of federal programs. For many years, Second Start received money from the NIFL’s research arm, the National Center for the Study of Adult Literacy and Learning, to research persistence in adult literacy education. The Oakland Readers series, and other student-driven publications, were published in several iterations over the years with grant money from a variety of sources. The acknowledgments of funding support found on the inside covers of these books read like an impressive “who’s who” directory of foundations and grant sources and adult literacy supporters, all with the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Fund figuring prominently. Second Start was in on it all.


In pointing to Second Start’s successes, a good place to start is the one-on-one tutoring model. While adult literacy students and volunteer tutors often come from different socioeconomic groups, when paired up, they might form meaningful, long-term bonds that are transformative for everyone involved. It’s a unique contribution to social cohesion in Oakland. While low literacy skills are persistent and systemic in the United States (93 million adults rank in the lower levels of the most recent national assessment of functional literacy skills2), they are often a source of personal shame and regret that individuals shoulder alone. Second Start is a place where people can tell their stories, belong to a larger community of learning, and gain a forward-looking view of lifelong learning. Volunteer tutors from the community participate in fifteen hours of tutor training before we match them with a student. Tutors learn to develop activities that include not just writing and reading strategies for phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension practice, but that also address what learners want or need to do in the roles they play in their everyday life.

Four main purposes bring students to adult literacy education: (1) the desire to have a voice in the world and be taken seriously, (2) the ability to take independent action, (3) to gain access to information, and (4) to learn how to learn effectively in a fast-changing society.3 We have no set curriculum and no standardized testing; service is individually geared to each learner. The driving question for instruction in Second Start is, “What do you want to learn about or be able to do?” Recent achievements from the past couple months are as varied as the individuals in the program. They include registering to vote, voting and reading about election results, getting a library card, reading a map for work, finishing a book on Muhammed Ali, learning about blood donation guidelines, passing the driving test, visiting a hardware store to practice construction terminology, and writing analyses of dreams.

Tutoring pairs work together on a wide variety of interests and needs. Common to all successful matches is growth in self-confidence. Take for example, Randall and Dan. This tutoring pair shows how far confidence and partnership can go in learning together. Randall has studied in Second Start for more than two years now, first in a small reading practice group led by a staff person, and then with his tutor, Dan. He came to the program because despite having gone through school, he didn’t gain adequate skills. Randall wanted to pursue his dream of someday going to college. He felt that having a degree would help him go into business some day and he could achieve his dreams of helping people.

Working with Dan, Randall has been able to move through some basic skills classes at a local community college, which eventually lead to enrollment in courses for credit. He recently enrolled in classes that will eventually transfer toward a degree. Dan has helped Randall every step of the way, helping him learn to read, “1,000 times better,” organize materials to study, function in a classroom setting, and talk to teachers. In discussing his experiences Randall credits Dan for helping him pursue his passions and “for making me a priority. I love him for that, and for his confidence in me to achieve things. Sometimes Dan is more motivated than I am when life looks dark. He brings sun and light to that darkness.”4

While his long-term goal is a college degree, Randall has been able to help other people and make impressive differences in the world around him. One of his driving passions is HIV/AIDS awareness and education, as Randall has had friends with the disease who have suffered and died. He and Dan worked with astonishing dedication this past year to organize an HIV/AIDS awareness and education event. Together they planned out what the structure of the event would be: an American Idol type event including musical acts punctuated with an educational component of stories told by young people living with HIV. They realized they needed a venue and they brought in the support of the community college’s student government so it could be held for free at the college’s facilities. Randall recruited all the hip hop, jazz, and R&B talent. His work was written about in the local media and Dan helped arrange recognition for the event from US Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan proclaimed April 12, 2012, as Hip Hop 4 HIV, Jazz and R&B Community College Showcase Day in the City of Oakland. Ultimately 250 people came and nearly seventy young people got tested for HIV in exchange for free admission to the event.

Randall said, “Dan can be modest if he wants to,” and adds, “but I wouldn’t be in the position I am today without him. I really excelled when I got tutoring. I could see progress.”5 Dan has really been able to attach skills to Randall’s interests and aspirations and considers tutoring an ongoing learning experience himself. Most tutoring pairs don’t have such a large-scale visible impact on the community around them, but they do develop relationships and work together to improve basic skills and gain confidence in order to address what really matters in a person’s life.

While one-on-one tutoring remains a central component of the Second Start program, we also offer other vital services. Students can participate in small learning groups led by a staff person, a computer learning lab with the added opportunity to receive specialized tutoring on computer-related job seeking activities, the support and guidance of a student on staff and family literacy programming for adults with children in their lives. We regularly offer workshops and learning opportunities that engage different permutations of students and tutors, depending on their interests. They have participated in offerings as varied as poetry writing; recorded conversations with the StoryCorps organization; strategy sessions to improve phonemic awareness; workshops for families that include a family literacy activity with free book giveaways and dinner; voting information meetings from the League of Women Voter; training on software that reads any text out loud; and two job skills workshops on interviewing and how to keep and succeed on a job.

Program Challenges

People who need literacy services the most might have the toughest time finding a program and might not have a minimum level of stability necessary to make a long-term commitment. Compared to twenty years ago, both students and tutors have far less time for tutoring. They have less-stable employment and schedules and seem far more stressed economically with the challenges of holding things together.

Some research from the National Institute for Literacy about adult learning and reading theory has helped adult literacy programs become more responsive to the immediate needs adults bring to literacy learning. While we have more tools to help tutoring pairs identify activities and materials that will have the most relevance in their limited time together, attracting students who have the means to meet a tutor regularly and practice new skills has become a major concern for programs like Second Start. Long work hours, juggling more than one job, access to child care, transportation costs, health, and personal crises all present obstacles to continuity.

Crushing poverty and the pressures on working poor people are so much more evident now. The cumulative effects of welfare reform from the late 1990s, added to the economic pressures of living in the expensive Bay Area make regular participation in learning a challenge. The aging of the Great Migration population in the East Bay represents the end of an era of solid jobs that could support families. It is far less common to meet native English speaking adults who have never been to school because they worked as sharecroppers in the South before moving to Oakland. Instead, many urban-raised adults either left school before graduating or were not served adequately during their formal education as children. Or, immigrants who have lived in the United States for years can communicate well in English but have very little formal schooling. Many students today are un- or under-employed and might race from job to job to try and make ends meet. Some have been shut out of the workforce long-term. Add to that the changing definitions of what being literate means anymore—technology skills and greater demands for education credentials for entry-level jobs raise the bar higher and higher. The need for adult literacy education is greater now than ever before.6

Second Start asks both students and volunteer tutors to commit to a minimum of six months of tutoring on a regular, once or twice-a-week basis. This expectation lets people know that building skills takes time and practice and doesn’t happen overnight. But that can be quite a high hoop to jump through. At a recent Bay Area library literacy network meeting, programs reported that many tutoring pairs can only meet once a week. While Second Start’s computer learning lab and various workshop events can serve students with irregular schedules, and while offering small group learning is a way of helping people who might not be able to commit to a regular volunteer tutor, it is reasonable to question how much progress can be made in so little time. Given that the need for adult literacy services is still great, but that adults have that much more difficulty participating in it, Second Start has to reconsider the way services have always been delivered.

Our relocation to the main library in 2012 represents a move away from one hub of activity at the West Oakland Library toward a larger presence throughout the city. Second Start’s headquarters are at the main library, but the OPL system has eighteen branches serving many diverse communities in a huge geographic area. Through branches all over town, Second Start has the ability to raise awareness of adult literacy education. The program now offers tutor training workshops at four different libraries. In order to more conveniently serve students and tutors, we have begun conducting new student orientation meetings and individualized student interviews and assessments at branches closer to participants’ homes and workplaces. Tutoring pairs meet at libraries convenient to both the student and the tutor, and Second Start offers a variety of small group instruction programs taught by a staff person in three libraries in different parts of Oakland.

Developing community partnerships outside the library is that much more critical now, not just for student referrals to the program, but also for going outside the walls of the library to serve people where they already spend time. One successful venture that holds possibility for future activity is a partnership Second Start has built with an organization called Center Point. Center Point is an organization that holds a contract with the California Department of Corrections to serve Oakland residents on parole. Our goal at Center Point is to serve adults who need some literacy services when and where they can access them and to raise awareness of and build bridges to OPL and to our library-based program.

We have a stellar volunteer tutor, Denise, who has volunteered as a one-on-one tutor for Second Start since 2009. The student she has worked with has since grown by leaps and bounds. He passed his driver’s test, enrolled in a job training program, and started taking classes at the local community college. Since her student needs her less and less, Denise was looking forward to a new commitment in Second Start. Denise had years of volunteer literacy experience before joining our program. She is also a former teacher, and she is particularly interested in the criminal justice population. It needs to be said––Denise is a dynamo with extraordinary interpersonal skills.

As a volunteer, she has gotten to know the Center Point staff and has been vital in building a positive, warm, collaborative relationship on which we can build. Denise regularly tutors students at Center Point to help them build skills they will need to eventually pass the GED. Computer skills are a major need as well, as access to and the ability to use computers is an integral piece of literacy. Many people coming out of prison have never used the Internet. Denise begins her work with each person there by helping them get an email account and complete a library card application. In characterizing her work she said, “I’m not providing everything. I’m pointing them to resources and the main one is the library. They all live near a library, even if they’re homeless.”7

In addition to straight-up skills tutoring to help people move toward the GED, Denise has been able to help many parolees study on a drop-in basis for the driver’s test. She helps them complete job applications and housing forms as well as community college enrollment paperwork. Leaving prison can be a disorienting experience. Denise talks with parolees about concrete next steps in their lives, giving them confidence along the way. One of her regular students, James, says that Denise, “pushes you, stays on top to help you out, wants to see you make it just as much as you do. I would look out for her.”8

The library has so much to offer the clients of Center Point. The OPL branch manager closest to Center Point recently visited parolees with information about relevant library services, and Second Start’s family literacy person was able to make a presentation there and connect Center Point with free children’s books to give to parolees, as many have children or grandchildren. Participants at the center report going to the library for the first time to check email and to look on Craigslist for housing and employment. Some work with Second Start tutors on their basic math and reading skills.

The biggest barrier for serving people on parole is the lack of consistency. Parolees get re-arrested, they get removed from their clean and sober housing for violating parole, people have been shot and stabbed; parolees’ lives are generally unstable. The bridges are slow to build as this population trusts no one. But as Denise and the other wonderful volunteers she attracts, including her own family and friends, keep showing up, trust is growing.

Groundwork for our partnership at Center Point was carefully laid out through a series of meetings with the leadership there. But because Second Start attracts fantastic volunteers, we are able to deploy someone like Denise to follow her passions and do so much on behalf of the program and the library. Not all volunteers would feel happy or confident working with people on parole in Oakland. It’s important to give potential volunteers realistic expectations about what the experience might be like. We have attracted additional volunteer tutors to Center Point through a workshop structure that gives them a chance to observe the goings on there on a limited, no-commitment-required basis.

Once a month, Denise organizes a Second Start mock interview workshop at Center Point. Clients practice interviewing in front of a panel of three or four people and get immediate and written feedback about what went well and what could improve. Second Start volunteers can check out Center Point by either participating as an interviewer or simply by observing the workshop. Several more Second Start tutors have decided to tutor on site there after participating through the workshop.

This mock interview workshop takes place regularly at Center Point, but also travels easily. We have had wonderful success rolling it out at the library with Second Start students and volunteers who entered the program through our more traditional route. Participants both at Center Point and at the library have been able to take the skills they’ve gained and immediately put them to use, as several people have practiced their interviews and had successful real-life interviews—and job offers—shortly thereafter. In addition to mock interviews, we have offered a writing workshop and a job skills workshop that have traveled successfully between the library and Center Point. In the future, we hope to see people fresh out of prison gradually gain stability in life and commit more time to lifelong learning at OPL.

Looking to the Future

So many service providers across the country have scaled back drastically or have disappeared altogether. (The Blue Gargoyle shut its doors in 2009.) In Oakland, adult education services through the school district’s adult school are hanging on by a thread after having its budget decimated in the past few years. Our community college system’s transitional programs are endangered, and other entities have scaled back tremendously or have simply disappeared. The funding scene for adult literacy education is truly in a different place than it was in the 1980s and 1990’s, starting with the National Institute for Literacy that was defunded in 2008. Second Start, with tremendous support as a library department, has weathered many storms. Given the economic and social challenges we face in Oakland. our urban library literacy program must explore more routes to deliver relevant and effective adult literacy services to the resource-strapped people who need them. We will build on the success we’ve had engaging learners inside and outside our library’s walls with excellent volunteers, the smart use of technology, and through meaningful collaborations with community partners. In any case, it is imperative we honor the roots of California Library Literacy Services and work in partnership with the adults we serve to solve problems and innovate.


  1. Carla Lehn, telephone interview with the author, Nov. 6, 2012.
  2. National Center on Education Statistics (NCES), “National Assessment of Adult Literacy” (2003), U.S. Department of Education, 2005.
  3. Sondra Gayle Stein, Equipped for the Future: A Customer-Driven Vision for Adult Literacy and Lifelong Learning, National Institute for Literacy, 1995.
  4. Personal interview with the author, Oct. 4, 2012.
  5. Ibid.
  6. It is estimated that 19 percent of adults in Alameda County score at below basic functional literacy levels. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), “National Assessment of Adult Literacy” (2003). And with the city’s high school dropout rate placed at 37 percent––the 2nd highest in California––we know that percentage is probably much higher in Oakland. KQED, “New High School Dropout Data: Oakland at 37 Percent.”
  7. Personal interview with the author, Nov. 28, 2012.
  8. Personal interview with the author, Nov. 28, 2012.