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Stomping out illiteracy in Illinois

The original goal was too ambitious, but the state-coordinated effort to teach illiterate adults how to read has gained momentum. Local volunteer effort is the key in this program of using state grants and private support. Evaluating the first year's effort, coordinators believe that the program is apparently working — except in Chicago where the number of illiterates is overwhelming and a different approach is needed.

THE Thompson administration's big push on education reform applies to more than just kids. There are an estimated two million adults in Illinois who are, for all practical purposes, illiterate. Teaching these people to read has been a major concern of the administration, both as a response to President Reagan's nationwide literacy initiative and as part of its own overall economic development program.

Two years ago the state launched a cooperative effort by the Secretary of State's Office, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) and a state Literacy Council to eradicate illiteracy in Illinois. Its premise is that grass-roots local effort backed by some state funding and good media support will work better than creating a giant bureaucracy with massive funding outlays. Its goal, as announced by Gov. James R. Thompson, is to teach one million adult Illinoisans to read by 1990.

Today that effort is showing some signs of success. Across the state some 10,000 adults have received literacy tutoring from about the same number of volunteer tutors. Interest on the part of both prospective students and volunteers seems to be growing, and the public is becoming more aware of what a big problem illiteracy really is.

The literacy effort has also suffered some growing pains. Indeed, many believe that the original goal of teaching one million students by the end of the decade is unrealistic. Contacting, encouraging and teaching illiterate adults (defined by the State Board of Education as those who read below the 5.9 grade level) is providing a stiff challenge to state administrators and local program coordinators.

In Chicago, where prospective students are being turned away in some areas, the main problem seems to be too much need and too few resources. In downstate counties, where volunteer tutors have sometimes outnumbered students, the problem has been outreach. With more people becoming familiar with the program, the situation downstate is gradually improving. But the solution in Chicago is more difficult. Even Secy. of State Jim Edgar, who is generally pleased with the program, acknowledges that there may have to be some changes to provide increased resources for Chicago.

The literacy movement is nothing new. There were volunteer efforts and government programs in the 1960s and 1970s, but money and enthusiasm fizzled out. Interest was renewed in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan launched the Adult Literacy Initiative. The administration did not budget money for the program; instead, it appealed to the media to raise the level of awareness of the problem and to businesses, local organizations and private citizens across the country to do something about it. Reagan also called on the states to get moving on the issue.

Launching Illinois' literacy initiative May 18, 1984, Gov. Thompson emphasized the importance of local efforts: "We have the resources to lick this problem. Massive infusions of money are not the answer. What we need, and what we have, are human resources. We have people who care deeply about illiteracy in Illinois."

With that, Thompson created the 36-member Illinois Literacy Council and made Edgar chairman. The council is made up of representatives from education, libraries, businesses and community organizations. It held hearings in 1984 and 1985 to determine the scope of the problem in various areas around the state and the best way to coordinate public and private programs. The General Assembly came through in 1985 enacting the Literacy Grant Program as part of the 1985 educational reform package (S.B. 730, P. A. 84-126), which enables the secretary of state to disburse grants to local literacy programs throughout the state. Illinois' strategies mirror those of the federal initiative. The state is trying to increase public awareness of the problem, inspire private sector involvement, promote further public-private cooperation and encourage volunteer efforts statewide to reduce adult illiteracy.

Emphasis: local

During the first year-and-a-half of funding, the Secretary of State's Office awarded $2 million in grants to some 64 local literacy programs. In addition, during this same period the ISBE spent $700,000 in state and federal monies for established school-based adult literacy programs like Adult Basic Education. For fiscal year 1987, Edgar has requested $4 million for his literacy grant program, and the ISBE $650,000. Joan Seamon, literacy coordinator for Edgar, says the program has already received grant requests for $5.5 million for next year from local literacy councils around the state.

Edgar downplays the role of money in fighting illiteracy. "I hope we're not measured in success by how much money we get from state government to put into this program," he said. "We'll continue to push for funds, but I'm not sure that's the biggest need.... The key is going to be that local enthusiasm. . . . [and] making sure this office, or the council, stays on top and keeps working, trying to assist these local literacy efforts."

18/June 1986/Illinois Issues

At the local level, the program now has over 100 literacy coordinators, paid partially by the secretary of state's grants, partially by ISBE funds and partially by private grants at the local level. Their job is to recruit, organize and train tutors to teach students in their areas, and to assist local media campaigns aimed at increasing public awareness and enticing illiterate adults to come forward for help. They keep in touch with Seamon in Edgar's office, with Ronald Dinges, Seamon's counterpart in the ISBE, and with the literacy council itself.

A unique aspect of the state literacy grants is that they are awarded directly to private, community-based projects on a competitive basis, instead of to the more established education agencies (such as community colleges, Adult Basic Education (ABE) programs and community college literacy programs) that the ISBE money is restricted to. At the same time, in order to meet the secretary of state's criteria for receiving grants, the local coordinators must demonstrate that they are doing everything they can to coordinate their efforts with all of the adult education providers in the area. In addition, the ISBE sponsors the Illinois literacy Hotline, complementing a national hotline which is part of an ABS/PBS national media campaign called Project Plus. Callers are referred to the literacy coordinators in their area. According to Illinois hotline operator Martha Olson, 1,363 calls were received from January 1985 to April 1986. The calls were split fairly evenly between males and females and between those wanting to tutor and to be taught. Olson said most of the calls came from the Chicago area.

Ten thousand students in two years appears a slow pace toward Thompson's goal of teaching one million adults to read by 1990. Seamon said outright that the goal "was a dream ....I don't think anybody sat down and realistically thought that through." Edgar agreed: "In the next decade, I would hope a million adults [would have been helped]. I think that's feasible.... It's going to be a long haul." Dinges at the ISBE also took a realistic look at Thompson's target. "Obviously, we're not going to reach that goal because of the complexity of the whole thing and getting it [the program] started," he said. "You don't just take an adult, who has low self-esteem, who has hidden the fact for years that he does not know how to read [and get him to ask for reading lessons]. . . . It's not that simple. . . . If we taught a thousand people to read in each of the next five years, that would be a tremendous success," Dinges said.

Ten thousand students in two years
appears a slow pace toward Thompson's goal
of teaching one million adults
to read by 1990

The literacy initiative does seem to be gaining momentum as more people become aware of the problem and the program, according to coordinators and administrators. "There does seem to be a lot of interest out there, and it doesn't seem to be just a fad," said Edgar. "I think the area I'm most pleased [with] is the reaction at the local level .... Everyone seems to accept the fact that there's a problem that we need to work together on, and there's a lot of interest and enthusiasm out there." Edgar said he has spent more time on this issue than on any other during the past two years. "Most people think I spend all my time chasing drunk drivers on the highway," he chuckled. "I'm hoping that we'll see this thing [literacy] move along to where a lot of these things will work [on their own]. We're putting in place in state government the necessary mechanisms," Edgar said.

Interest in the program is expanding downstate where, since the program's inception, there were plenty of tutors and not enough students. For instance, Larry White, a coordinator of five counties in southern Illinois, said the level of involvement is "snowballing." "It is contagious. I didn't see how we could find people [when he started five months ago] to volunteer for any type of teaching process [because] we're asking local people to do for free something which people are getting paid for," he said. "It seems to me that the more public exposure the program gets, the easier it gets." Seamon said that there are now more students asking for help downstate.

White said the majority of students in his area want their involvement in the program to remain low-key, especially in small communities where there is a fear of being embarrassed. He said he has one tutor teaching her husband to read at their home instead of at school. "He's a big, successful farmer. He's done well. He doesn't want people in the community to know." Given the dark depths of the problem for some adults, success as a tutor can be measured by individual success stories.

What are the people on the front lines saying about the literacy program? At an April 16 meeting of some of the key literacy and media coordinators, stories were swapped about how adults got by in their daily lives without knowing how to read. One coordinator recalled a story a tutor had told him about a student who said that before he learned to read he picked out cans of soup by the picture on the label. He could never buy Campbells because there were no pictures and he had no idea what he was getting. Stories abound about people making cross-state and cross-country journeys by memorizing landmarks and looking for long and short names on the highway signs.

Downstate coordinators talked about the difficulties they have had recruiting students and what they are doing about it. Many blame the reluctance of students to come forward on the embarrassment caused by the social stigma that society has placed on illiteracy. They contend that TV and radio commercials promoting the program need to be more positive: They should convey a message that says, "Not being able to read is nothing to be ashamed of, but not doing anything about it is."

June 1986/Illinois Issues/19

Problem: Chicago

And then there is Chicago, which presents a whole range of problems different from those downstate. More students are coming forward than current programs can teach. Some of the coordinators say that there is a need for vastly larger sums of money for more tutors and resources, especially in Chicago. Chicago programs face almost overwhelming numbers of illiterate adults. The high annual rate of illiterate young adults dropping out of school in the city helps to swell the ranks of those needing help. Many have been put on lengthy waiting lists for tutors.

'The sad truth is that nothing currently
seems to be working in Chicago that draws
money and resources in the areas of need'

Veteran literacy coordinator George Hagenauer, director of Literacy Volunteers of Chicago and a member of the state literacy council, points to the west side of Chicago as a key example. He said: "Potentially, probably 300,000 people need services; maybe 4,000-5,000 are getting served. And programs quite literally are turning people away. . . . That's a very sticky political issue, but it's one that needs to be faced [to make] sure those resources reach the hard to reach." Hagenauer praised Edgar's personal involvement and the literacy grant program. Referring to the first-year state budget, Hagenauer said, "It's a very important $2 million. It's the first time anywhere within this state that there has been an open and competitive process. This is the first time that programs like mine, like various inner-city groups, were able to apply for funds."

The administrators and coordinators are aware of Chicago's special literacy problems:

• Dinges: "If we didn't have Chicago as a part of Illinois we would do a lot better. And nobody knows how to solve the problems of Chicago."

• Hagenauer: "The sad truth is that nothing currently seems to be working in Chicago that draws money and resources into the areas of need. . . . The need is so great. There are probably two-thirds of a million people in one city who have need for literacy services. . . . Volunteerism is not going to work in those areas. . . . It's going to take some other form or structure to increase funding for adult education centers." Linking resources strictly to need is an example he mentioned later.

• Seamon: "The problem in the city is staggering. . . . We had some 30 Chicago programs that applied for funding expansion that we could not fund [in 1985 and 1986]. Overnight, no, it's not going to be solved."

• Clarence Mcintosh, outreach director, WTTW: "Too many students. Period. All the classrooms are filled. In Chicago alone there are 600,000 illiterates, and those agencies that handle illiterates and their tutors are filled up. They're underfunded, and they will be underfunded even though the state is going to increase the money this year."

• Ben Greer, PACE Institute, coordinator of literacy services for inmates in the Cook County Jail where 60 percent of the inmates have reading abilities below the 5.9 grade level: "People are concerned about crime. People are concerned about corrections [but] in my mind, corrections doesn't happen. Prisons and jails are more like warehouses. I would say that if policymakers are really concerned about [crime] they would put monies into programs like these that are doing something about educating them to become more productive citizens."

Edgar says he is not surprised to hear complaints coming out of Chicago, but was vague about whether he would support any avenues to direct specific literacy funds into the city. Hiring inner-city residents to tutor inner-city illiterates is one idea he is exploring.

He said that the differing circumstances and challenges around the state point to the fact that there is no one way to attack illiteracy. Edgar said, "The state's got to be careful not to say, 'Here's how we're going to do it. You do this in Chicago. You do this in Rockford. You do this in the Quad Cities. You do this for Carbondale.' It's a lot better for [them] to come to us and say, 'This is our unique problem. How can you help us?' "

Another suggestion at the April conference came from Dinges, who said state literacy funds should be spread more evenly between child and adult literacy programs to prevent intergenerational illiteracy. "The most potential you're going to get out of this program is working with adults who have a limited educational level and their children," he said. Dinges said that children of illiterate parents fall behind because their parents don't read to them. As an example, he explained that when money is allocated to Kankakee for children, policymakers should be more generous to the two adult education centers in that city. "Why don't you spread the use of those funds?" he asked. "There are adults with limited education whom you could work with in a coordinated fashion, teaching them and their kids, like neo-Head Start."

State role: catalyst

Edgar admits there is room for improvement in the literacy program, and he plans to work harder to encourage private sector participation. He points out that business has a vested interest in having an educated work force, and recalled a story highlighting the need for teaching blue-collar workers to read. He said he met some unemployed men who had learned to read at Moline's Black Hawk College literacy program. These men, he explained, had been making good salaries event though they couldn't read. "They had been able to get by," said Edgar. "They can't get by any longer." When they lost their jobs, the state could not retrain them because they could not read. "That problem," said Edgar, "is going to happen all over this state probably all over this country."

He admits that the state program needs to do a better job of being a clearinghouse of information to help coordinate the hodge-podge of Iocal groups. That includes making sure that businesses and community organizations that want to be involved are given a role by the local level program. The key function of the Literacy Council, he said, is to "continue to be a catalyst" to help local councils get off the ground, to help train volunteers and coordinators, and to provide grants on a competitive basis. "We, as a council, are not going to solve the problem; it's the folks we're bringing together [that] are going to solve it."

Seamon warned the coordinators in April against harboring unrealistically high expectations, implying that the depth of the problem precludes any quick solution. "We don't want to pretend that in a year we're really going to have even a significant impact," she said. "Hopefully, we'll have some impact, but it's going to take years and years and years — many, many years."

20/June 1986/Illinois Issues

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