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Reading Lessons


One-third of the adults in the New Orleans area can't read this newspaper. They do not help their children with homework. They rarely vote. That's because nearly one in three local adults read at or below the fifth-grade level.

Illiteracy negatively affects every aspect of civic life, from low voter turnout to low parental involvement in schools. Research shows that one of the best indicators of children's academic success is their mothers' education, a fact borne out in the statement of 29-year-old Michelle Hawkins, a local adult literacy student. After learning to read, Hawkins wrote, "[Now] I help my kids with their homework, and as they learn, I learn. That makes me want to learn even more. Now I write notes to their teachers just because I can."

Many adult learners cannot recognize even basic words, which excludes them from many remedial classes. GED-preparation materials, for example, are written at the eighth-grade level. The YMCA Educational Services (YES!) is the largest community-based adult literacy organization in New Orleans ("Can You Read This?" Nov. 12). Its groundbreaking creative-writing program -- led by students from Tulane and Dillard universities, and University of New Orleans -- meets the needs of these adult learners. This past weekend, YES! staff were asked to present their innovative work -- including the publication of the student anthology Courage From Behind the Mask -- at a national YMCA arts and humanities conference.

Reading ability is increasingly crucial, says YES! Executive Director Lou Johnson. "In my father's generation," Johnson says, "you could make a darn good living and not read at all. You could work as a Pullman porter on the trains, as a gandy dancer putting down railroad tracks, or on the waterfront where my father worked. What it takes today is vastly different to be considered competent in the workplace."

A recent report from the Center for Law and Social Policy notes that most entry-level jobs require the performance of one or more cognitive tasks, including reading and writing paragraphs. Melanie Thomas, the human resources and training manager for the Hotel Monteleone, sees illiteracy as a bar to career growth. "Housekeepers don't have a whole lot to read," she says. "So they may make it through the day today, but they're not able to be trained because that takes written material. They're stuck." Some local companies, including Ochsner Clinic, offer basic literacy classes on-site for their employees -- an investment that other businesses should consider making.

We now have a comprehensive picture of literacy in New Orleans, thanks to the Literacy Initiative, for which people from 50 different organizations worked, researched and met regularly over the past year. Last month, the Initiative formally created the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, based at the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy at Loyola University. The Alliance is an effort unique in the nation, and we look forward to seeing its progress as Literacy Alliance staff helps local providers with grant writing, research, training and advocacy.

The Alliance also provides a unified voice regarding adult basic literacy. This will be especially important as the U.S. Congress begins, once again, to debate the reauthorization of welfare reform. Groups such as the Alliance are asking Congress to count basic-literacy classes toward "countable work hours" so that students can still qualify for welfare while they learn to read. This past session, Sen. John Breaux -- who holds a key position as chair of the subcommittee on finance that has jurisdiction over welfare -- mediated the Senate's tripartisan package that included a six-month education provision for adult learners. Six months is not much time; recent studies recommend at least 12 months. But the Breaux compromise is a marked improvement over the Bush administration position, which specifies only three months.

It's a crucial time for adult basic literacy in Washington. The National Institute for Literacy has been the interagency voice for adult education; it was formed specifically for that purpose as part of the Workforce Investment Act. Yet all of the Bush administration's appointees to the Institute's board have been experts in child literacy. Last week, Breaux co-sponsored a "Dear Colleague" letter along with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), asking that the board's permanent director -- who hasn't yet been appointed -- be someone with expertise in adult education and literacy. We applaud Breaux's effort in this area and underscore its importance to New Orleans.

President George W. Bush has promised to move forward with "No Child Left Behind." If progress is to take place, adult learners must not be left behind, either. The two goals are inseparable. Just ask adult literacy student Michael J. Polit, who described learning to read to his 14-year-old daughter in Courage From Behind the Mask: "Amanda would come to me with new books and I would try to make up the stories by looking at the pictures, but it was hard for me. ... I hope I'm still alive when she has a child of her own. I will sit her child on my lap and read to her all night long."

For information about volunteering opportunities, contact the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans at 864-7041.

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