The next month will be make-or-break for Skyline Literacy’s English and citizenship programs

By Ryan Alessi

Community support and donations over next month will determine to what degree—or even if—Skyline Literacy can continue providing reading and citizenship courses for community members next year, board members said Monday.

Business and community leaders on the nonprofit’s board huddled for more than an hour and 40 minutes in a special called meeting Monday evening at the law firm of Litten & Sipe. In order to save the program, which didn’t get a six-figure federal grant that the organization had hoped for, board members will step up appeals to individual donors, companies and other organizations around Harrisonburg, said Bill Fisher, Skyline Literacy’s board president.

“We’re basically waiting to see what kind of response we get from the community in terms of fundraising,” Fisher said.

The board will meet again Nov. 27 to determine what’s next, including how to cover costs of citizenship classes the organization holds each spring, as well as English language and literacy courses.

Board member Sylvia Whitney Beitzel said the program, which recently pared back its staff from five to two, could look different starting in 2019. That could mean “re-envisioning how we provide services, may that be all volunteer, may that be collaboration with other agencies,” she said.

For now, board members expect Skyline to make it through the current semester, which began Sept. 5 and ends Dec. 12. It’s running 12 classes across Harrisonburg and Rockingham County that provide basic, beginner and intermediate English language classes. Skyline also coordinates 66 volunteer tutors and collaborates with other organizations to provide free English classes as part of “Parent University” on Saturday mornings geared toward parents of students at Thomas Harrison Middle School and Harrisonburg High School.

Even with 167 adult students taking Skyline’s courses and receiving tutoring, the organization still has a waiting list.

“The courses we’re giving right now through this academic semester—we can do that, scraping along,” said Andy Kohen, one of Skyline’s board members..

But beyond that? Nothing is certain.

“It feels like we’ve explored every corner of the universe,” Whitney Beitzel said. But Skyline’s board is open to discussing new partnerships or fundraising efforts, she said.

What happened?

Donations have been slower in recent years. But the biggest hit was not receiving a renewal of a grant through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for fiscal year 2019. That grant represented about two-thirds of Skyline’s $200,000 annual budget, Kohen said.

While Skyline learned this fall it wouldn’t get that grant money—and that no similar organizations in Virginia would either—the Department of Homeland Security hasn’t said why.

“We’re in the dark as to what it was,” Kohen said.

As of this publication, The Citizen had not received the Department of Homeland Security’s responses to questions about why Skyline’s grant application failed and whether criteria changed for the 2019 fiscal year.

How did Skyline respond?

After learning the grant was not approved, the board immediately tried to reduce costs and cobble together funding from smaller grants and donations.

The board cut the program’s staff from five to two: the program manager, Nelly Moreno Shenk, and Barbie Spitz, the literacy programs coordinator and tutor manager. Both have absorbed new responsibilities because of the staff reductions, Kohen said. The organization also cut back on the amount of space it rents at The Valley Workforce Center.

The next step came last week, when the organization made the rare move of announcing that it was “in a perilous financial situation, and desperately needs assistance” from donors.

Board members also began reaching out directly to previous donors. Kohen, for instance, spent part of Sunday addressing labels to send letters to individuals who had given before to let them know about Skyline’s financial dire straits.

Who relies on Skyline?

In part because of Harrisonburg’s status as a designated refugee resettlement community, as well as the diverse workforce in local industries, many residents have a need for the services Skyline provides. The Harrisonburg City Public Schools, for instance, enrolled students born in 53 other countries and spoke 57 other languages besides English, according to September 2017 data.

Of those students for whom English is a second language, 73% percent were Spanish speakers. Arabic and Kurdish were the next most frequently-spoken languages.

The program also boasts of numerous success stories who found higher-paying jobs after going through the programs, according to Skyline’s testimonials.

“We’re not leaving any stone unturned,” Kohen said. “We are deeply committed to the mission of this organization, but we can’t continue without financial support.”

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