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Guest Column

Adults learning to read can transform lives

By Guest Columnist EMILY ELLISON, president and CEO of Literacy Action

As morning traffic in Atlanta returns to its pre-summer crawl, signs of the new “season” are everywhere: Heavy backpacks are pulled over shoulders. Peanut butter sandwiches and apples are crammed into lunch boxes.

And families all over the city are rushing out the door, hoping that permission slips have been signed and that summer reading assignments were completed. It’s back-to-school time in Atlanta – an annual rite of passage for everyone from the pre-school set to college students.

What many people don’t realize is that it’s also a time when thousands of adults return to school, adults who for reasons many of us cannot imagine stopped their educations years or even decades ago. Often they did so because of learning issues such as dyslexia that were never diagnosed or never addressed, and they fell further and further behind each year until they had no way of catching up; sometimes they were even “counseled” out of school. Other times their educations were interrupted because of the illness or death of a parent, or because they had a child of their own to care for.

Our fall semester at Literacy Action is beginning, just like schools all across the city. Through our doors come hundreds of the 800,000 adults in Metro Atlanta who are considered functionally illiterate. This means that they do not have the basic skills to follow a bus schedule, fill out a job application, read the directions on a pill bottle, or help their children with homework.

When they return to school, they’re often as nervous and frightened as some of the kindergartners who had to let go of Mom and Dad’s hands and walk into a classroom of strangers. Even worse, some of our students enter the classroom cowed, their heads down, fearful not only of the unknown but also fearful of one more educational failure. Most believe that they’re the only one who for years has been hiding the fact that they cannot read.

What they soon realize is that their situation is hardly an anomaly. Rather, they are like hundreds of thousands of other adults in Atlanta who have been trying to navigate through the incredible complexities of 21st Century America with third-world skills.

Even those of us who have been blessed with parents who could read to us, with first-rate educations, and with the security of stable careers often find it difficult to keep our edge and keep pace with ever-changing technology. Fifteen years ago, many of us didn’t have an e-mail account, much less know how to Tweet or Blog or have a Face Book account.

Imagine trying to negotiate through this economic climate and look for a job when you’ve never been on a computer; when you read at a 5th grade level; when your math skills are lower than most third-graders’.

Imagine trying to do something as innocuous as pumping gas if you are unable to decode a word such as “receipt.” Imagine taking your own child to school for the first time when you’re afraid that the teacher or other parents will find out that you cannot read the forms that you have been asked to fill out and sign.

President Obama wants America to be the nation with the highest number of college graduates by 2020. That’s a laudable goal. But if the children who would be graduating from college in 2020 are now being raised by parents who cannot read, those kids haven’t much of a chance of finishing high school, much less college.

Research shows that the greatest indicator of a child’s success in school is the educational level of his or her parents, especially the mother. Last year at Literacy Action, we served approximately 700 adult learners. More than 60 percent of those students were women, and the majority of our female students were single heads of households, raising school-aged children.

Here’s a story that has been told often by Dr. Ruth Parker, a faculty member at Emory University Medical School and the person who coined the term “health literacy”: A mother who had a very sick child was given an antibiotic for her little girl’s ear infection. But because the mother could not read, she did the intuitive thing – she poured the Amoxicillin into the child’s ear.

All of us have been impacted in some way by the current economy, but most people with good educations, with critical thinking skills, and with at least a modicum of technology skills have a fighting chance. For low-literate adults, however, this economy is a perfect storm with only governmental assistance as a lifeline.

Not our problem? Think again. It impacts our tax base. It impacts Atlanta’s ability to be a global competitor and attract new businesses and industry. It impacts productivity and quality of life. It impacts our reputation as a world-class city. It impacts crime, incarceration and recidivism. In one government study, the number of prison beds being budgeted for in twenty years is based on the reading scores of current third-graders.

But mainly it impacts the kids on those yellow buses in front of us in traffic each weekday morning. Children raised in low-literate homes start school having heard less than one-third of the words heard by a child coming from an educated home. That makes it difficult for even the most skilled, well-meaning teachers and the best financed school systems to keep those children on par with their young peers.

To ensure that today’s children have a shot at graduating from college in 2020, we have to start with the people who are raising them.

Instead of perpetuating the intergenerational cycle of illiteracy and poverty, let’s make the effort to educate the young woman who dropped out of school in the 10th grade because she became pregnant. Instead of blaming her for a transgression she made at 15, let’s make sure that she can read and write and knows enough algebra and geometry to pass the GED exam.

With a GED certificate, she can finally get a job from the people who told her they don’t hire anyone without a high school diploma. She can read to her child. She can help him with homework. She can become in involved in his school.

Not only is she ensured of self sufficiency, so is her child. And his child. That’s a whole different kind of cycle. Imagine that.

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