The Read on It

Local literacy students put their new skills to work as they react to proposed federal budget cuts that threaten services across the country.



On weekday mornings, Sister Lillian Flavin takes care to unlock the door to the downstairs classroom at Gilmore House by 8 a.m. The adult literacy program housed in the white-frame building on St. Andrew Street doesn't officially start until 9. But the Hope House program is built on the principle that adult learners need flexibility to persist in their studies towards a GED. As the Hope House program director Don Everard puts it, "People live complicated lives." To that end, students here can attend as frequently or as infrequently as they want, charting their own progress. For those who come to work on their lessons before they go to their day jobs, Sister Lillian unlocks the door an hour early.

One of the regular 8 a.m. arrivals is John Thompson, who in 2003 was exonerated of murder after 18 years on Angola's death row. A high school dropout, Thompson learned the power of literacy when years of poring through his legal record turned up evidence that prompted his exoneration. Reading was also a lifeline; to get through the days, Thompson read everything from James Clavell's novel Noble House to Iceberg Slim's Pimp: The Story of My Life. Still, when Thompson took the assessment tests for the GED program last fall, he scored well below high school levels of proficiency in all subject areas.

The chart in Thompson's file shows the steady stream of worksheets and progress tests he's ticked off his to-do list in just six months. His latest tests show he's jumped three levels in every subject area in the last 90 days.

In February, though, Thompson met an obstacle that daunted even him. The teachers at Hope House's' morning adult ed class announced that President George W. Bush's proposed 2006 federal budget radically cuts public funding for adult education across the country. The draft of the budget now before Congress calls for a 66 percent reduction in the U.S. Department of Education's funding for adult basic and literacy education. Of the $585.4 million allocated to adult literacy nationally through the Department of Education in 2005, only $215.7 million would be renewed.

The Louisiana Department of Education served 33,977 adult learners in fiscal year 2003-04. The state received $9,234,216 in federal funds for adult basic and literacy education. The president's budget proposes to cut that amount to $2,398,774.

At Hope House, Everard has no intention of closing his program, which has been operating in the St. Thomas/Irish Channel neighborhood for more than two decades, and last year served about 200 adult learners. But if the cuts go through, he says, it will reduce the program's $40,000 budget to something below $20,000. Should that happen, Hope House probably will have to stop giving evening classes and possibly reduce its number of teachers from three to two.

So in February writing classes, Hope House students, most of whom are old enough to vote, turned from studying sentence structure to writing letters. Utilizing their knowledge of civics -- another area required to pass the GED -- they composed letters to their representatives in the U.S. House and Senate. In each letter, the writers told their personal stories about struggling to get by without a diploma and basic literacy skills. And in each letter, they insisted that the funding be restored.

ACROSS TOWN, ON THE SECOND FLOOR of Loyola University's Monroe Library, Rachel Nicolosi pats a stack of more than 600 letters gathered from Hope House and the 39 other adult education programs that are part of the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans. Each of the letters has already been faxed to the addressee.

"A lot of guys have high school diplomas, but we test them and they test at fourth- or fifth-grade reading levels," says Nicolosi. She says that low-level literacy is common in the workplace, where it trips up industrial workers who need to deal with more and more regulations. "Increasingly they have to pass health and safety tests to be OSHA certified," says Nicolosi. "They can do their jobs with their eyes closed, but if they can't pass the test, they're in trouble."

The letter-writing effort was part of a national push organized by the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education (NCSDAE). Last week, the campaign said that the effort has resulted in more than 300,000 letters nationwide.

The budget cut would disproportionately affect New Orleans, advocates say. Research shows that between 24 and 32 percent of the local population functions at the lowest level of literacy. The national average is between 21 and 23 percent of adults.

Lou Johnson, executive director of YMCA Educational Services (YES), is familiar with how those numbers break down locally. He cites research from the national Literacy Pro database: 26 percent of adults in the metro area have literacy levels below those expected by second grade. Another 24 percent read, write and compute at a second- to fourth- grade level, and an additional 20 percent function at grade levels four to six.

"That means that 70 percent of the adult population of this city can't read a newspaper," says Johnson. "People don't really get what this issue is. It's tied to everything -- to health care costs, to the rates of insurance we pay on our automobiles, to our crime problem, everything."

It's also tied to the achievement levels of young people who are still in school, something that infuriates Johnson when he looks at the proposed budget cuts. "This president wants to be the 'education president,' but he doesn't get that the best way to improve the lot of a child is to improve the lot of the adult in the life of that child," he says. He points to research sponsored by the National Institute for Literacy that shows that children's lives reflect education levels in the home and community. "How many judges' sons and daughters become attorneys?" he asks. "It's obvious the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

YES specializes in serving the adults few others will touch -- those with literacy skills below the fifth-grade level. Between ESL and adult basic education programs, the group serves 800 adults in five parishes on a budget of less than $400,000. Of that, about $150,000 currently comes from the Department of Education. Johnson estimates that the proposed cuts would mean a 64 to 66 percent reduction of services. Even with help from various United Way agencies and donors, cuts totaling to at least $96,000 will inevitably lead to fewer classes for adult learners, he says.

The cuts are likely to have a similar effect in programs across the state and country. A report by the Center for Law and Social Policy ( says that 11 states would lose 75 percent or more of their federal funding for adult education, and that another 25 states and Puerto Rico would lose 70 percent of their grants. Adult education money is dispensed to the states based on the number of adults in that state who lack a high school diploma. Workers in the field say that's a false measure because many adult learners with high school or even college diplomas lack literacy skills. Still, it qualifies Louisiana, where more than 30 percent of adults don't have a high school diploma, as one of the biggest losers under the budget changes.

"Let's face it, $500 million for adult literacy across the country wasn't a lot of money to begin with," Nicolosi says. She and others are worried that, should funding drop below $200 million nationally, it will be much easier to zero out adult education completely.

OF THE LITERARY ALLOWANCE of Greater New Orleans' 40 partner agencies, only eight would be directly hit by the cuts, Nicolosi says. But those eight are heavy hitters in terms of impact. In addition to YES and Hope House, they include public school facilities for adults in Jefferson, Plaquemines, St. Bernard and St. Tammany parishes. Also hit would be the adult education component of New Orleans Public Schools, which helps young people with higher-level literacy skills achieve their GEDs. In 2003-2004, NOPS served 2,021 adults. What will happen to its funding is unclear, because it will have to compete for grants from a vastly diminished state pot.

Doug Anderson, director of St. John Community Center, another New Orleans program that relies on federal funds, says that his instructors report seeing more and more young adults in their classrooms. There, they can work at their own pace and receive one-on-one assistance. He says the increase in numbers results from the double-whammy of disciplinary expulsions and high-stakes testing in public schools.

'When kids get kicked out of public school for disciplinary or academic reasons and still want their GED, they need some place to go," says Anderson, a former public school teacher. "No Child Left Behind might be a good concept, but what do you do with the kids who are left behind?"

An amendment sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and narrowly passed by the Senate would restore funding for adult education. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) is also lobbying for support for adult education. The House and Senate versions of the budget will probably go to committee by mid-April.

Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu was among those who voted for Kennedy's amendment. "We need to be focusing more on adult literacy in our state, not less," she told Gambit Weekly through a spokesperson. Sen. David Vitter did not join the handful of Republicans who crossed party lines to support the amendment. Vitter's office could not be reached for comment by presstime.

The national fight over adult literacy funding is laced with allegations. The Bush administration charges that adult literacy programs haven't proved their effectiveness. NCSDAE and other literacy organizations counter that the government initially asked them to use one system to track their successes and is now opting for a different system, one for which they haven't gathered data.

Defenders of the cuts say that the loss in adult literacy programs is compensated by an increased availability of job readiness programs, adding that funding for adult education has been shifted to job readiness programs in the Department of Labor's budget. Local literacy experts say that job readiness programs generally require higher literacy skills than they have seen among the adults who come to them for help -- and they say the cuts will cripple the programs that deal most with low-level literacy.

NEXT YEAR'S CUTS AREN'T LIKELY to affect John Thompson directly. He's closing in on his GED fast. He says he wants his grandchildren to know that they come from a literate household.

But Thompson is concerned about what might happen to some of the other students who crowd the Gilmore House classroom on weekday mornings. Some have been remanded to the GED program as a condition of parole, while others -- mostly young girls with children -- are here as a condition of welfare-to-work programs. Thompson worries most about the girls with babies. He's afraid that they won't be able to support themselves until they get the skills they need to find a decent job.

Eighteen-year-old Fharen Richardson is one of those girls. Pregnant, Richardson came to Hope House looking for help in finding a place to live. When the staff couldn't help with housing, she enrolled in adult education instead. 'I don't want to be the kind of mother who says, 'I just dropped out of school,'" says Richardson. She says she was an honors student until she got caught up in the street and dropped out in her junior year. Now she's planning to take her GED exam this month.

In her letter to Sen. Landrieu, Richardson wrote, "In order to get a job, or might I say a decent job, I am required to have a high school diploma or equivalent. I know that my child can not eat if I am not doing anything. In order for me to learn how to do anything, I have to have some type of knowledge. "My child depends on me," she concluded, "and I am depending on your vote."

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