Usesike Brightwell, a mother of three and student at Goodwill Excel Center in northwest D.C. (Courtesy photo)
Usesike Brightwell, a mother of three and student at Goodwill Excel Center in northwest D.C. (Courtesy photo)

Word in Black is a collaboration of 10 of the nation’s leading Black publishers that frames the narrative and fosters solutions for racial inequities in America.

Within a matter of months, Usesike Brightwell has increased her reading stamina and developed a newfound interest in expanding her vocabulary and critically analyzing the texts she comes across in her studies, including George Takei’s “They Called Us Enemy.”

Brightwell, 27, enrolled in Goodwill Excel Center at the beginning of the calendar year with the goal of acquiring her high school diploma. By the time she finishes the program next summer, Brightwell hopes to have the reading and math foundation needed to pursue a CNA certification. 

Since starting at the Northwest-based adult public charter school, Brightwell has taken two courses she said has helped her alleviate her anxiety about reading, which in part compelled her to drop out of school. 

Over the last seven years, as she navigated the job market with three children, Brightwell has come to regret that decision. 

“When I applied for a job, I didn’t understand the application and never asked questions. When I got the job and saw the responsibilities, I got confused,” said Brightwell, a Northeast resident who learned about Goodwill Excel Center from a family member. 

“I’m loving that I got the opportunity to come back to school and get into reading. It helps me learn about words I don’t know. I ask questions or use Google to figure out vocabulary.” 

In the United States, 43 million adults cannot read above the third grade level, a dilemma that places a strain on the economy and prevents people from leading fulfilling lives. Data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics designated 23 percent of Black adults as having low literacy, compared to 35 percent of white adults and 34 percent of Hispanic/Latino adults.  

Once they leave school, familial responsibilities and other challenges often keep adults with low literacy from reentering the classroom. Without the proper credentials, they are unable to enter the job market.  

At Goodwill Excel Center, teachers and staff members endeavor to create a caring, tight-knit environment for adults disillusioned with K-12 education. Students who graduate receive a high school diploma along with college credits or career certification. When it comes to boosting literacy, programming starts with an assessment that determines one’s reading lexile level. Depending on their score, students enter reading classes where instructors expose them to culturally relevant readings and a bevy of strategies including slowing down, asking questions, and identifying with the text. 

Kimberly Kelley, an instructor who teaches the building reading foundations class at Goodwill Excel Center, said she provides her students with an experience like one would find in a gifted and talented class. 

For instance, when Kelley and her students read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” students often reflect on their experiences with law enforcement. In addition to reading texts, students under Kelley’s tutelage complete identity charts and record themselves reading aloud on Microsoft Teams.  

Kelley, a former middle school special education teacher with dyslexia, also dropped out of high school before finding her way back, acquiring her high school diploma and pursuing higher education, all while raising her daughter. When engaging her students, Kelley reflects on her journey to better emphasize with them and create an environment where everyone can overcome hurdles together. 

“I know the difference between having and not having a high school diploma,” Kelley said. 

“The world is really against you when you don’t have one. What we do here changes families. Education has changed the course of my family and I see it in my students when they are able to help their children navigate the education system.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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