When Debbie Johannson arrived here to operate the Silver Valley Learning Center a year ago, there were two students’ folders in the file drawer, and one of those students was in jail.
Now, there are 110 folders.
“I care so much about each person who comes in here,” says Johannson, who runs the center for North Idaho College. “I think that’s why they keep coming back.”
Johannson, 40, is a former psychiatric nurse who stumbled into the field of remedial education. Her recipe for helping adults catch up on their basic skills: Gear tutoring to what they want to accomplish, and make it fun.
“They’re really happy here,” said Jessica Lepo, 17.
Lepo said her schooling was disrupted by frequent moves. Now, she comes to the learning center every day with her boyfriend, Isaac Cotsford. They want want to catch up and earn their high school diplomas.
Learning Center tutoring is free and available for people 16 and older. Students come and go as they please.
Most come to prepare for the GED, a high school equivalency test. Others have been out of the work force and want to get back in. Some speak a foreign language and want to become more proficient at English.
“We had one blind man who who needed to learn Braille,” said Johannson. “I don’t care what they know when they come in. We care what their goals are. We make it safe to make mistakes.”
Johannson was an Iowa farm girl who got a nursing degree, then stayed home with her children. She moved to Coeur d’Alene when her husband found work in Idaho.
She answered an advertisement seeking volunteer tutors at North Idaho College. That grew into jobs with VISTA and AmeriCorps, volunteer organizations that give participants $600 a month for living expenses. They also get $4,725 at the end of each year for college expenses or school loan payments.
The Kellogg center had been started by a VISTA worker and was open three afternoons a week when Johannson arrived as an AmeriCorps worker in November 1996.
She took her personal computer to the center’s office, a utility closet in the blue Steelworkers Union hall on Hill Street.
Right off, she expanded the hours. The center is now open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and Mondays from 5 to 8 p.m.
Thanks to a federal grant, NIC was able to hire Johannson. She got another AmeriCorps worker, Bekka Rauve, to help her. She scrounged for donations of office equipment.
Over the 1996 Christmas holidays, she had a baby and took a week off. She put a bassinet in the corner and nursed Ayla behind the computer.
“I was convinced her first words would be ‘GED,”’ said Johannson, whose husband, Gillon, is a ski instructor.
When Johannson asked the Steelworkers for a larger office, she got it. Lessons are given at dining tables in the main hall.
The union doesn’t charge rent to the learning center. Its members recently installed wiring for additional computers.
“I can’t say enough good things about what the union does for us,” Johannson said.
Local Steelworkers’ President Ken Paulsen is impressed with what the center does to help people prepare for jobs in the economically depressed Silver Valley. There are no colleges and little job training in this area, which has been hammered by mining industry cutbacks for two decades.
“We’re glad to help,” Paulsen said of the learning center. “Since she took over - I don’t know what she’s doing different, but it’s rolling.”
One thing Johannson does is network. She has connections with Head Start and Even Start, programs that help disadvantaged preschools and promote family literacy. She serves on the Department of Health and Welfare’s information and referral board, as well as the board of North Idaho Community Express, which provides bus service.
The center staff has grown to two part-time AmeriCorps workers and two volunteers.
Another part-time instructor will be hired soon, said Sue Shockley, interim director of adult education at NIC.
“Debbie just works so hard,” Shockley said. “That community has so many needs.”
Johannson doesn’t think the Silver Valley’s needs are that much greater than anywhere else. About 55 percent of Americans lack some basic literacy skills, she said.
Capitalization and punctuation are stumbling blocks for many who come to the learning center. Simple math maneuvers often perplex them.
“I’m having trouble with percentages,” said student Connie Kellar, a high school graduate whose children are grown.
Kellar hopes to learn computer skills. She tried typing her resume on a computer, “but every time I started I got a little more frustrated, so I quit.”
Replied Johannson: “We’ll get back to it at some other point.”
Patience and energy are Johannson’s strong points, AmeriCorps tutor Mike Shaw said.
“She works very well with adults who are illiterate or close to illiterate. She has the patience to work with a person on one letter of the alphabet at a time.”
Johannson turns the compliment around, saying that adults make wonderfully motivated students.
“They don’t have to be here … and they’re bringing a lifetime of skills to the tutoring table.”
Learning center staff members emphasize they are tutors, not professional teachers. Johannson is a parttime student herself. She’s taking courses in education, speech and composition at NIC. “I hate writing,” she confessed.
But Johannson loves her work.
“We’re changing lives.”
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