Jade Newgaard was the wary-eyed student. 

GED student Jade Newgaard

“I never cared a lot about school,’’ she says. “It was not on my radar.”

Then she met Colleen Latimer, General Educational Development (GED) Educator for Multnomah County’s Library Outreach Services. They communicated often while tackling math equations, and gradually, this school thing started to click for Newgaard.

“Without her, I don’t think I would have done everything I needed to do,’’ Newgaard says. “I was always second-guessing myself. And she was like, ‘You can do it! You can do it!’ ”

Now Newgaard is taking her first college classes, starting this month at Portland Community College Sylvania Campus in Southwest Portland. She says she’s pursuing an associates degree in applied science, and with an interior design focus.

“I’m so nervous,’’ Newgaard says, her voice a mix of accomplishment and anticipation.

She’s succeeding, in part, by staying the course: working with library staff and volunteers that helped keep her GED goal in sight when libraries were closed in mid-March. Growing concern over COVID-19 infections required the drop-in, volunteer tutor-based GED program to pivot from in-person sessions at libraries to a largely Zoom- and phone-centered virtual format, Latimer says.

The program is part of the library’s adult literacy offerings, which aim to meet wide-ranging literacy needs of marginalized adults, fill gaps in community resources, and engage a diverse community. Support includes GED exam tutoring in math, social studies, science, and language arts. Prior to library closures due to COVID-19, the GED program operated out of Central, Gresham, Midland, North Portland, Rockwood, and St. Johns libraries. These branches serve higher proportions of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, as well as immigrant communities.

Tutoring is an essential bridge to the critical next step of passing four tests to obtain the General Education Development certificate. To this end, Latimer says, students have benefited from a $16,000 grant that helped fund Latimer’s position and vouchers provided by the library to cover the costs of the tests. The library also pays the $6 practice test fee, she says.

“It’s a big part of why people come to the library’’ for tutoring, Latimer says.

“If they are working on it on their own, the tests are $38 each. And, at minimum, they’re going to take each of the four tests to pass. So, that is $152, at minimum, because people frequently need to retake a test.’’

Latimer teams with Lisa Regimbal, Multnomah County Library Adult Literacy Coordinator. She connects tutors and students, and paired Newgaard with tutors that helped her through the program.

About 100 participants completed orientation over the course of the past year, Latimer says, with Newgaard among roughly 35 actively involved when libraries closed. At each drop-in session before libraries closed, volunteer tutors with a variety of skills were available for patrons.

“The tutors definitely are the backbone of the program,’’ Regimbal says. “We’re able to meet the needs of many more learners because the tutors willingly give their time.’’

Regimbal says the program currently is supported by about 20 tutors, their commitments ranging between two and six hours a week. The consistent participant numbers underscore the program’s ability to adapt during the pandemic, with library buildings not yet open to patrons due to COVID-19-related physical distancing and other safety protocols.

“People have come to a point of acceptance that this is going to happen for a long time,’’ Latimer says, referring to the ongoing worldwide pandemic and many resulting lifestyle changes, including at work and home.

They include tutors, too, such as Jerry Hanson, a retired high school math teacher and tutor for three years. He says he’s tutored 10 hours a week since spring, and finds the new arrangement more convenient than drop-in tutoring at the library.

“Doing the remote thing is actually better in some ways for some students,’’ he says, noting that the student he currently tutors works weekends. So, they connect between Mondays and Fridays. “That works because I’m really flexible with time.’’ 

Latimer says 28 students currently are active in the program, citing Newgaard as an example of the program as a gateway to community college and, eventually, four-year colleges and universities.

“It’s more common and accepted today than it was in the past to attend college after getting a GED,’’ Latimer says.

Newgaard’s journey to this point started in late-winter 2019, after, she says, she “stumbled across the program on a Google search.”

“I just really wanted to do it for myself,’’ she says. “I just felt ready.” Her mantra was: “I want to graduate.”

But Newgaard knew her commitment would be tested. She was working part-time, and primarily responsible for running the family household of two elementary school-aged children and her husband, who works full-time.

So, in addition to Latimer, Newgaard says, she’s been grateful for Regimbal. “I never felt like I wasn’t getting help.’’

“They make it easy,’’ Newgaard says “Not easy on what you need to do. They make it easy to show up.”

That’s high praise from a once-reluctant-student-now-turned-GED-graduate.

“She called me a trail-blazer the other day,’’ Newgaard says, referring to Latimer. “It almost made me cry.”

Learn more about the library's GED tutoring program

As Carla Davis knows well, library storytime is a playful and magical experience— a time full of singing, dancing, playing, and yes— also reading stories. Storytime programs enable Carla to introduce babies and toddlers to the library, while also connecting with parents about ways to continue to support their child’s literacy and learning. 

“The library is about exploration, and I love that I get to bring that to children,” said Carla. 

Carla Davis Youth Librarian

Carla, or even “Ms. Carla” as some of her young storytime attendees often like to call her, is a Youth Librarian at Midland Library, and she organizes several storytimes each week, in addition to serving as a storytime mentor teaching other library staff how to build age appropriate storytime curriculum and connect with young patrons. Carla is also part of Multnomah County Library’s Black Cultural Library Advocates (BCLA) team which focuses on bringing culturally relevant materials, programs and services to the Black community.

Since the closure of Multnomah County libraries in mid-March due to COVID-19, librarians like Carla have continued to support the community through this crisis. Carla has been working with a team of other Youth Librarians and BCLA staff to bring their storytimes online (find Carla’s virtual Black storytimes on the MCL Youtube It’s Black Storytime playlist). In addition, she is working with the Black Cultural Library Advocates Team to provide valuable resource information online for the Black community— everything from food and health to educational resources. Carla also volunteered to support Multnomah County’s emergency shelters, working shifts at the Oregon Convention Center shelters.

“It was a valuable  opportunity for my teammates and I to serve in the shelters. It’s always rewarding to not only help, but to meet and get to know great people who reside there,” said Carla

Carla started her career with Multnomah County Library as a Clerk. She later went on to earn her Masters in Library Science from Pratt University in New York. She’s worked with various libraries such as  Atlanta Fulton Public, and Shearman and Sterling Law Library as an intern. Like many library professionals, she was drawn to a career in the library from a love of books.

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, Carla was working with a team of library staff from across the county on a community engagement project with the Coalition of Communities of Color aimed at helping prepare Black children ages 0-6, and their families, for kindergarten. 

The project is supported by the Equitable Education Grant from Meyer Memorial Trust and The Library Foundation. Recently, she initiated a survey at the largest national Martin Luther King (MLK) program in Portland. It included parents of Black children ages 0-6, and their awareness of library storytimes and services.  

“It is my hope that as our Education Equity team learns more about the needs of parents and educators, that Multnomah County Library will be a major conduit through which educational gaps will be filled in even more creative ways as a result of these and other kinds of assessments.” 

Carla’s dedication and service to children and families was recently nationally recognized by the American Library Association, and awarded the 2020 Random House Penguin Young Readers Group Award and stipend for her comprehensive programming efforts at Midland Library. Beyond organizing and delivering numerous weekly storytimes, Carla hosted a teen-led Teen Talent Showcase and organized a Black History Gospel Timeline that shows how gospel music developed from the 18th century to the present day. 

“Being in a library is the best kind of ‘work,” she said. “I love to be in an environment where I can  “theoretically” read— even though in reality I’m usually busy preparing for programs, working with community organizations, and helping youth and families navigate the library.”

After more than 20 years in library service, Carla sees the library evolving as a hub for the community, especially as people look to the library for services beyond books and traditional programs. 

“As we shift in the way we serve due to the crisis, thankfully the library has always been a viable source of online information and resources, and we will continue to expand the ways we deliver to our users.”

Library security officer Martin
On a typical day at Rockwood Library, you might find Library Safety Officer (LSO) Martin Clark asking patrons about their day or hanging out with teens in the Rockwood makerspace. While Martin is tasked with ensuring patrons follow library rules, his efforts center on building positive relationships with people and helping everyone use the library safely.

Driven by a desire to serve his community, Martin entered a police cadet program through the Gresham Police Department, prior to joining Multnomah County. He also worked for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). That job helped him learn to talk to many different people every day and to understand complex security procedures.

Martin first worked at library branches while working as a facility security officer (FSO) with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Department. He welcomed the library’s approach to safety and security and decided to join the library officially as a safety officer at Rockwood Library. Having grown up in the Rockwood community, Martin already felt a close tie to the neighborhood.

In 2016, Multnomah County Library added safety officers at some locations. Martin and the other safety officers are library staff, not police officers or security guards. They help patrons use the library successfully and apply the library rules. They also connect people with outside services and resources. Some safety officers also assist with shelving and other tasks.

With the Rockwood makerspace only a few years old, Rockwood Library has worked hard to find new and better ways to serve youth. Martin sees his position no differently. 

Martin’s approach to safety and security includes finding ways to help patrons use the library without being punitive. 

“I enjoy building relationships with patrons so when they come in the library and see me, they have a positive experience, rather than thinking they’re going to be followed around. I want everyone to feel welcome.” 

Martin works to build relationships with the youth and adult patrons who use the library. Rockwood library is bustling after school, with many teens making use of Multnomah County’s only free makerspace. While the small library can get busy, Martin’s compassionate approach has helped decrease incidents, particularly among youth. 

“For some, the library is a place of safety from other outside pressures or difficult personal situations,” says Martin. “Whatever their reason for being here, I want to help them use and stay at the library, which sometimes means needing to communicate the library’s expectations for conduct in the library.”

Having experienced some of the same challenges as the youth patrons at Rockwood Library, Martin knows firsthand what his life would have been like without a caring adult in it. He sees his position as a way to pay it forward to the community.

“The best ability is your availability,” says Martin.

People notice Martin’s contributions to the library. As one patron commented, 

“. . .Martin is such a great and exceptional asset to "our family library" here at Rockwood. It is great to see someone that is always smiling and he just makes our trips to the library an all-around general excellent experience. Not to mention that he is very, very helpful... Thank you for hiring such an individual as him.”
 

Graduates from the library's adult tutoring GED program
A group of graduates shared their joy and dreams with families, staff, tutors and patrons at Midland Library during its first-ever graduation ceremony for adults who earned their GED certificate thanks to Multnomah County Library’s drop-in tutoring program. 

The graduates donned caps and gowns, posed for photos and shared cupcakes, shared stories and described their plans for the future. Tiffany, a full-time administrator’s assistant in a busy social service program, now qualifies for a promotion. Cherille, a single mom who studied all summer with a tutor, finished school to be a role model for her children. Chance has worked many jobs but now dreams of entering a veterinary technician program at Mt. Hood Community College. Diana, a bilingual mom and businesswoman, juggled family, business and her studies and proved to her daughter that she could finish school.

The GED drop-in tutoring program, coordinated by Adult Literacy Coordinator Lisa Regimbal, has served 103 older and younger adults over the past year. Many of the program’s attendees were nervous about the test and didn’t know how to study or where to begin. Thanks to a one-year Oregon GED Program Wraparound Services Grant, the library has been able to offer attendees free GED testing, tutoring by volunteers, and coaching from GED Coordinator Colleen Latimer. Multnomah County Library was the only library system in the state to receive the funding. 

A cadre of 30 volunteer tutors helped the students stay motivated while remembering the intricacies of algebra and fractions, and studying science, social studies and language arts. Library staff ensured students felt welcomed and provided books for kids while parents studied.

The ceremony was a reminder of the importance and significance of graduation for the students who had dropped out of school years earlier. Graduate Cherille was surrounded by her children, nieces, nephews, elderly mother and other family members. She pointed to the children and smiled,  “I wanted to show them I could do it.” 

Drop-in tutoring and GED assistance is currently available at six library locations: 

  • Mondays, 4 to 6 pm, St. Johns Library
  • Mondays, 5 to 7 pm, North Portland Library
  • Tuesdays, 5 to 7 pm, Midland Library
  • Wednesdays, 10 am to 12pm, Rockwood Library
  • Wednesdays, 4 to 6 pm, Gresham Library
  • Thursdays, 10:30 am to 12:30 pm, Central Library

Rockwood makerspace
Nestled in a back room of Rockwood Library is a space for teens to create, make and try out cutting-edge technologies. Separate from the library, the Rockwood makerspace offers local youth access to high and low-tech activities— for free—without expectations. 

Echoing trends by public libraries across the world to give people free and open access to new technologies, Multnomah County Library opened the 1,000 square foot collaborative space in 2016 with the support of The Library Foundation and the Mount Hood Cable Regulatory Commission. The Rockwood makerspace is the only space in Multnomah County that provides youth with free and open access to these cutting-edge technologies. 

On any given day, teens are huddled together on Macbooks, coding new video games or designing items in CAD software to produce on the space’s 3D printer; building robots; sewing costumes; or just hanging out and being teens. The space is comfortable and inclusive, offering numerous open labs throughout the week for teens to drop in and use the space however they choose. The makerspace has been so popular with the community that it recently opened limited times for adults to use it, including offering some bilingual adult programs.  

In addition to needing dedicated, and specially trained, staff and volunteers, the makerspace requires thoughtfully designed infrastructure to operate successfully, including open and powered spaces and separate ventilation for heat-producing equipment such as laser cutting machines. Due to space constraints across the library system, the library is only able to offer one makerspace for the more than 800,000 people it serves.   

The Rockwood makerspace has become a community, providing young people opportunities to explore science, technology, engineering, arts and math, while having fun. While the access to new technologies and creative space helps teens develop skills that may contribute to their future career path, it most importantly offers them the freedom to try new ideas, to fail without judgment or consequence, to build their confidence, and to be who they are

“It has changed my life, actually. It’s taught me to not be scared, to just try new things,” said Mariah, a Rockwood makerspace participant. 

Currently, the Rockwood makerspace is the only space of its kind at a Multnomah County Library location. Multnomah County Library is working hard on a plan to bring these kinds of creative and modern spaces to other libraries and communities. Learn more at multcolib.org/planning.

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