LOCKPORT – Adult instruction is a priority for the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services, and recently a national organization took notice in a big way.

Orleans-Niagara BOCES won a $5,000 cash prize from the American School Board Journal, the publication of the National School Boards Association, for its Literacy Zone Welcome Centers.

The Magna Award, as the prize is known, will help bolster the budget of the adult literacy program, said Susan G. Diemert, a BOCES literacy specialist.

“To receive national recognition for their outstanding achievement just highlights the thoughtful and deliberate work they do to improve the lives of our students and the community,” BOCES Superintendent Clark J. Godshall said in a statement.

About 2,500 students a year take part in classes at BOCES’ nine adult education centers in the two counties.

“We are thrilled that Mrs. Diemert’s team’s hard work has been recognized for their commitment to lifelong learning,” said Rebecca Albright, president of the Orleans-Niagara BOCES board.

The Lockport program, which includes classes for adult literacy, high school equivalency diplomas, job training and English as a second language, opened last year in Christ Community Church, formerly First Baptist Church, at Pine and Genesee streets.

Kristen J. Frain, of Lockport, who lost her job at a collection agency recently, was there last week “just brushing up on basic computer skills.”

Frain, who said she wants a job in customer service, said she was admitted to the free course through the Niagara County Department of Social Services.

“Anybody who applies for welfare has to come here,” said Jessica L. Bush, a member of BOCES’ literacy staff. “Some people are here for Social Services, but we have people who come in off the street, too.”

Another free course is English as a second language, taught by Stella Gresham.

“It’s an immersion philosophy,” said Gresham, who is trained in French and has picked up some Spanish from her students. “I require them to speak English until they get into the elevator” to leave.

“You start out with pictures a lot,” said Gresham’s assistant, Kathy Carlson, a 20-year veteran. “English is very difficult, when you think about it. There are so many exceptions to the rules.”

Last week, almost all of the students came from Puerto Rico, but one was from Iran and spoke that nation’s language, Farsi.

That was Mandana Fekri, who won a State Department visa lottery and entered the United States seven months ago.

“My brother lives in Canada. Canada is near here,” she said when asked why she is in Lockport. But Fekri said she doesn’t intend to stay here long.

“No Lockport. I want to move to California,” she said. Asked why, she said, “The weather is good for Iranian people. Here, it is very cold.”

On the other hand, Jahaira Rodriguez said, “I like Lockport.” A Puerto Rican, she moved here from Brooklyn nine months ago to live with her aunt.

Sharri L. Turk, one of three teachers working in the high school equivalency program, said the process of obtaining a belated diploma has become harder since New York implemented the Common Core curriculum. “There’s a lot more that they have to learn,” she said.

The equivalency certificate used to be called a General Equivalency Diploma, but Turk said New York no longer is allowed to use that term, because it is trademarked. New York’s new Common Core equivalency test is called Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC.

“We were at one time a one-room schoolhouse, and one teacher taught everything,” Turk said. But now, the three teachers divide up the subject matter.

“We’re here all year round,” Turk said. “We get new students every week.”

The newcomers are thrown in wherever the class happens to be, “and we move them forward,” Turk said.

Carolyn E. Graff, who teaches the reading and writing aspects, said the writing portion of the TASC test has become more demanding, requiring what she called “evidence-based writing” rather than a simpler essay on a student’s personal impressions of some topic. “Slowly but surely, they’re getting it,” she said.

Bush said that some students in the TASC program also are studying to pass the U.S. citizenship test.

The Lockport Literacy Zone Welcome Center is patterned after a similar program that began in 2009 in Niagara Falls. “We basically have the whole church,” said Diemert, a member of Christ Community Church.

Classes are offered weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and also Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Diemert said the idea is to locate the welcome center in an impoverished neighborhood with high levels of illiteracy and unemployment.

“The key to a successful Literacy Zone is partnerships within the community,” Diemert said. More than 60 organizations were invited to help out.

“The best part of the initiative,” Albright said, “was that it came together from entities in the community that saw how they could learn and share through the collaboration.”

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com