Creating community ‘connections’

Reading Connections, one of three Innovation Grant recipients, was recognized by the National Literacy Directory for its creative solution to a common literacy challenge: creating an authentic and applicable curriculum to meet the needs of both its community and students.

Upon resettlement in 2016 from Ethiopia to Greensboro, North Carolina, Lome faced what all refugees experience upon arrival: anxiety, uncertainty, and the pressing urgency to find work. Wanting to find a way to support her family, she quickly turned to Reading Connections for assistance in finding a job and integrating in the community.

Since 1990, Reading Connections has transformed the Greensboro community—the 8th largest resettlement community for refugees in the U.S.—through literacy programs covering basic skills, English as a second language, high school equivalency preparation, family literacy, corrections literacy, and workplace literacy.

Recognizing a need for skilled textile workers to fulfill sewing machine operator positions and desiring to help students like Lome who are looking for career pathways, Reading Connections set out to expand its program offerings. They decided to create a project to concurrently teach ESOL and provide workforce training within a high-demand industry that offered immediate employment and a career pathway for advancement.

To pilot a Sewing Machine Operator Training program, Reading Connections met with the Chamber of Commerce and economic development professionals and formed partnerships with six local manufacturers to inform curricula and understand benchmark requirements for employment. They also created a plan to address issues pertaining to employer retention and the need for an ongoing development of English skills. These partnerships resulted in an assistance of removing barriers such as transportation and childcare, which tripled the capacity of the Reading Connections staff.

To create its sewing-based curriculum, the Reading Connections staff toured manufacturing facilities to become familiar with relevant and specific vocabulary used on the production floor and obtained hands-on materials used in production to make instruction as authentic as possible. Class materials included scissors, seam rippers, and threaders.

Through the Sewing Machine Operator Training program, Lome gained the English and occupational skills necessary to be hired at a local furnishing and textile company with a starting wage of $10/hour. She is one of 20 students to benefit from the Sewing Machine Operator Training program, with an additional 15 students scheduled to finish the program this year.

In addition to workforce readiness, students increased their English language skills for increased involvement in their children’s education. Businesses are also seeing the benefits of offering literacy instruction for all low literacy populations currently employed (immigrant, refugee, and native English speakers) to assist in job growth and production.

The Innovation Grant will fund an industrial sewing machine in the classroom to better contextualize English language instruction.

Reading Connections’ mission is to transform our community by improving literacy and promoting educational equity for people of all ages, empowering them to navigate changes in an increasingly complex world.

Interested in receiving an Innovation Grant from the National Literacy Directory? The next round of applications is currently open and closes on June 9, 2017. This round is to attend ProLiteracy’s Conference on Adult Literacy in September. For more information and to apply, visit