A legacy of literacy
"It's time for someone else to have their vision fulfilled," says Sue Webster, who will retire next week from the Willard Adult Learning Center after 33 years there. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Adult-education advocate retires after 33 years at learning center

After 33 years working at the Willard Adult Learning Center, Sue Webster will retire June 11.

"It's time for someone else to have their vision fulfilled," she said.

Through her years of teaching, working as a department chairman and a counselor, Webster has watched the Learning Center grow and expand, and she has grown along with it.

The Missoula native has received several honors through the years. In 1981, her peers in the Montana Association of Adult and Continuing Education honored her as the outstanding adult educator of the year. In 1992, she was elected president of the Montana Adult and Community Education Association, a position she held a couple of times. In the early 1990s, the eight-state Mountain Plains Adult Education Association gave her a commendation.

In 1995, she became a board member for Literacy for Volunteers of America-Missoula. And, in 1999, she was voted the family literacy administrator of the year by the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

She is most proud of the award the program itself earned. In 1996, the Learning Center received the Secretary's Award by the U.S. Department of Education for outstanding work in adult education and literacy, "the highest award you can get in adult education," Center Director Carl Sandell said at the time.

"She's been real instrumental in making this a very successful program," Sandell said Wednesday. "She's a nitty-gritty, welcoming person and students are comfortable with her whether it's academic or social. She's always been there for the students."

The Secretary's Award "shows the collaboration of all the personnel here. … Through collaboration, people and programs grow," Webster said.

She also is proud of the 1981 recognition from her peers.

"They choose one educator of the year to honor. That was my year," she said.

In years to come, she said, she hopes the program runs out of people to serve. "But with the increasing number of high-school dropouts, I don't see that happening," she said. Instead, the Learning Center is finding that many participants have undiagnosed learning disabilities such as dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.

She also dreams that people will have easier access to adult education. Outreach programs have been held in smaller towns in western Montana but, she said, "There is still a need for more classes."

She'd like to see more outreach using telecommunications, and for public broadcasting stations to offer not just GED (general equivalency diplomacy) programs but also basic literacy programs to help people improve.

Another dream is for funding for Native American students who often have greater needs and greater barriers than other students.

"Often in communities, they are not fully accepted, perhaps due to health or social problems," she said. "Often there is a lack of understanding of culture by instructors."

While her replacement, Donna Bakke, struggles to fill her shoes, Webster will be quilting and traveling to visit her children. She'll also volunteer to help other agencies and perhaps assist a post-secondary screening committee to help welfare recipients go to school, and may consult with the Office of Public Instruction to implement a new state plan for basic education.

"She's going to be missed by everybody, especially the students," Sandell said. "Sue is the literacy person. She's the first person they (students) look for when they come here."

The graduating students, 100 of them, will be recognized at a party Thursday at 11 a.m. at the Center, 901 S. Sixth St. W. The public is invited.

Webster will be recognized at an end-of-the-year party Friday night.

Thursday - 6/3/99

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