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The Faces Behind the Numbers: An interview with Rosita Bacchus

Mar. 08 2023

After more than 18 years with United for Literacy (formerly Frontier College), Rosita Bacchus is retiring later this month. Since it’s International Women’s Day, we thought it was the perfect occasion to celebrate Rosita’s career in literacy. We’re going to miss her.

A ceaseless advocate for literacy and learning, Rosita is the Program Coordinator for Beat the Street, which provides individualized, student-centered learning support for young adults in Toronto. Initially created in 1985 to help young people living on the street learn how to read, Beat the Street (BTS) has evolved into a place where people from all kinds of backgrounds and places get learning and skills support. For some, it’s upgrading their math and writing skills so they can further their education or get a better job. Others arrive at BTS wanting to gain confidence and prove to themselves that they can set and achieve goals. Rosita and her team of staff and volunteers work with the learners to create a structured yet flexible program that meets the needs of their learners.

What follows is a Q & A with Rosita Bacchus excerpted from a longer interview. Some answers have been edited for space and clarity.

Would you tell me a little bit about your background? What did you study in school?

I’m originally from Sri Lanka, and I came to this country in the ‘60s. I was nine years old when I came. And so, my dream was to be a doctor, to go into medical school, because I was exposed to many things in my life. My uncle was a professor in zoology, and he took me to his lab. He showed me all these samples, fetuses, and animals in formaldehyde. I did go into the sciences. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree. And I worked for the environment for many years. I also wanted to work in a hospital. So, I ended up in the hospital and worked in dialysis, in biomedical engineering, for about 10, 11 years. When I was there, I volunteered in literacy with TDSB (Toronto District School Board).

I always wanted to teach. I got that opportunity in the hospital, and then, when I left, I went back to school part-time and obtained my B.Ed degree in education; I’m an adult educator. And then I completed my Master’s in Education but from a college perspective. I did U of T for one year, then transferred to York University. Then my B.Ed degree was from Brock and my Master’s degree was from Central Michigan University. I also had the opportunity to work in diverse communities. I spent a lot of time in the classroom where I always was looking at how people learned and applying my theory with practice. I taught in the college system, in post-secondary community college in adult ed.

And then I worked in literacy. I was hired to open [an adult] literacy program for the Durham Catholic District Schoolboard in Ajax. And after 10 or 11 years, I left that and went into community. I came to Toronto. I came to Frontier College, which is now known as United for Literacy, as a Coordinator.

What interested you about adult literacy?

I felt like I could communicate better with them. I was very interested in knowing what their experience was and what impacted their learning; who was influential in their learning; what their journey had been; and how I could contribute in a small way to helping them with their journey for learning. Learning is transformational. And we don’t know when that happens. As educators, we don’t know when that happens. But I met people from all over the world in my travels, and they were educated people, but they came to the literacy program to upgrade. And some of them were engineers, and they went to Ryerson and moved forward with their degrees and their craft.

Before you came to United for Literacy, were you working with people—like those engineers—who were upgrading their English literacy skills, or was it people who struggled with the education system?

I taught a multi-level class. Yeah, that was fabulous. That was where I got to use all my skills. It was multi-level class, which helped people really move very quickly to attain their goals because they relied on each other. It was very cohesive group. I also had volunteers in the program, and they got to learn about the different cultures. We had many celebrations with different foods and ceremonies. And that was that was key to for us to progress.

How did you start working at Frontier College (United for Literacy)?

I wanted to get much more into community, because, you know, in the school environment, it's very structured…. I wanted to expand my knowledge, and so I decided I'm gonna move into community. I moved into a program at Regent Park. I worked there for a year and then I saw Frontier College asking for coordinator. I applied and I was hired to work in Beat the Street as a Program Coordinator. I’ve been here for 18 1/2 years. It’s been so fruitful. I’ve had a wonderful time.

So, since you started working here, you’ve always been with Beat the Street?

Yes. And, you know, Beat the Street looked quite different when I came. It was very individualized. One learner didn't know the other. But when I came in, I started the classes [and] getting students together. They got to know each other, and we had a great community. The tutors were a part of a big part of the team as well. We had the Microsoft Office certification part. We had the GED part. So, Beat the Street was alive and very rich in programming at that time, yeah. My role was also to develop a curriculum for programming as well volunteer management. So, there was a lot of opportunity.

Beat the Street was an enriching environment for me because it was learning as well as giving back. It was learning from the learners, learning from whoever was around me: the different communities we served. I don't know if anyone would remember Tent City [Note: Tent City was an area in downtown Toronto where hundreds of people lived until they were evicted in 2002]. We had learners from Tent City, we worked with them, and they were in our programs. We worked with people from shelters and people from stable housing. It was really people from different social economic backgrounds coming together.

Have you seen the BTS learners and volunteers change since you started?

I think the profile of the learners has changed. Beat the Street was known for serving people on the street. That’s the original…. Not anymore. We serve many, many people from different organizations, from stable housing. And students who have been out of school—the regular system—for a while and who wanna get back and move forward. When I came here, there were volunteers, but the focus was having university students come in and volunteer. What we found was they didn't stay very long. And the people in the program wanted stability. When [the volunteers] left, it was disarray again for [the learners]. So, what has happened over the years is that we have very stable set up. Volunteers who stay. I have volunteers who have been here 15 years… more than 20 years as well. That’s stability; in the adult program that is key because there's that connection.

We did not have an Instructor-Coordinator when I came in. It was just me and the volunteers. I was in the classroom teaching and getting to know what was happening so that I could make changes to the program and bring innovation There's innovation that has happened. We have done the Literacy Outside the Box with volunteers and the community outside. We also have a video from that, which I use during training. We’ve also done a podcast, which is still there—and that's innovation that was volunteer led. The volunteers are a very important part of our programming.

How does your role work in conjunction with the Instructor-Coordinator?

I'm the first person that [someone] sees when they're coming into the program. I meet them, do the intake. I get to know them as an adult educator, that's so important for programming because the mission statement of United for Literacy is student individualized learning. We need to know who we're working with. Each program is different for each learner. The information I collect, assessments, documents, everything is communicated to the Instructor-Coordinator. The Instructor then takes over with the learner. My relationship with the Instructor-Coordinator in the program is crucial and communication is key. If something is happening with the learner and that's not communicated to the Instructor-Coordinator, everything could just go off for that that learner.

Has the effect of COVID-19 changed your classroom setting?

We have, of course, precautions. We have individual rooms and there is a room for a small group to come together. The board room can be used and [still maintain] distancing. Literacy is done, usually, in a social manner. We’re developing ways to do it online—that’s great for some people. But there’s a social aspect. Employers are looking for that: to be able to work as a team. If you are going to college, you need to work as a team. Cooperative learning, you know, that is really key. We need to have a balanced program.

Are there any learners you're especially proud of?

A lot of learners who have come to us, have gone to post-secondary. Melanie moved on to post-secondary and she went into plumbing. A young lad who just got his GED two years ago is now in his second year of social work. I have another fellow who moved on to George Brown College in the chef program. Another from when I first started moved into post-secondary and is now working in HVAC. There's one who's just graduating: Taylor is graduating and he's already working. He's attained his GED, and he's planning to go on to an apprenticeship program.

And … Godfrey. He was initially from Uganda and came into our program. His experience was as a child soldier. But he went through our program. He's a professional boxer. He's working and doing quite well. I still keep in contact with him. So yeah, there's a lot to be proud of. And even if people don't go on to college, you know, sustainable employment…. I have one learner who's got sustainable employment and is very happy and planning to go back to school because of the job that he's got.

But self-confidence, that's the number one thing to develop before they go on. Once they have that, things start moving.

I like to say this: We do need statistics. We do need numbers to get funding. That is a must. But we have to be very careful when we put that in the forefront because these numbers have faces behind them. We’re working with people’s lives. We are impacting people’s lives. I’m very careful that this is the first thing that we’re looking after.

Read about some of the other women from United for Literacy.

A woman with brown eyes and silver hair and a taller man with glasses are holding a certificate
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