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Case Study

Reading Between the Lines


University of the District of Columbia






Symphonic Strategies designed a phased, mixed-method research strategy to help the senior leader at the State Education Agency understand and document the needs and stories of low-income, functionally illiterate residents in two of Washington, D.C.’s most impoverished Wards—Wards 7 and 8.

We designed an innovative research agenda that answered four outstanding questions: (1) How do adults with limited literacy skills perform activities or tasks they may not have mastered? (2) What are the personality, demographic, and other assets that make persons with limited literacy skills more likely to engage in adult education and employment programs? (3) Why are some individuals, with low levels of literacy, less likely to engage in adult education and employment programs? (4) How can interested stakeholders better serve specific segments of the general target population?


Through our work with this client, we demonstrated a number of our core business capabilities.

The research and consulting engagement included:

  1. an extensive literature review and benchmarking analysis of other studies that focused on the needs of low literacy adults in the United States;
  2. in-depth interviews with leaders of adult learning organizations;
  3. focus groups with 93 limited literacy skilled adults representing seven customer segment groups (High School Dropouts over 30 years of age; New Americans — Spanish speaking; Previously Incarcerated Men; Previously Incarcerated Women; Single Mothers; TANF recipients; and Young Adults from 17-24);
  4. data analysis;
  5. a market assessment of the services available at that time to adults with limited literacy; and
  6. a gap analysis that compared existing offerings throughout the city to the needs being expressed from the needs assessment.


Our unique cultural competencies, non-traditional outreach strategies, and unconventional information gathering techniques enabled us to engage respondents from the target populations and extract valuable information from them. We provided the University and city officials with recommendations based on primary research that detailed how they could better serve low-income segments in the city. In addition, those recommendations were then used by the University to advocate for improvements in the services offered by the city to low-income, functionally illiterate residents.