By GRANT PICK
Adult illiteracy: new frontiers at home and on the job
This is the third in a series of three articles dealing with the problem of adult illiteracy in Illinois. The other two articles appeared in the October and November magazines.
Training adults to read is a movement that has taken hold in Illinois. "We haven't solved the problem, not by any means," says Secy. of State Jim Edgar, who has made literacy a priority of his government service. "But we do have a lot of people involved. There's an awareness out there."
As a consequence, the literacy drive has moved into a second stage. It is shifting away from sole reliance on the standard models — older students sitting with individual tutors or with a teacher in the classroom — to include two new frontiers: family and workplace literacy.
You can find the first frontier represented in a large classroom at the Lawrence Adult Center in Springfield, where two dozen youngsters huddle around computer terminals on a warm spring evening. The kids are studying a literacy curriculum developed by the IBM Corp. Called PALS, the curriculum features a cartoon-like approach that attempts to make the subject fun. The kids are participants in a local Urban League project designed to foster responsibility in adolescents and pre-teens, but there are also a few older siblings along.
The older siblings are welcome, for this program is an attempt at encouraging family literacy. Rachel Phillips, who is 20, has trailed along with her younger brothers. "I want to learn how to work computers, and after that I'm going to get a job," she says.
"You gotta get the whole family to read," says assistant program coordinator Doris Chambers. "You must start at the root; otherwise, you will have no impact." Her strategy pervades the family literacy movement, which is led in spirit by First Lady Barbara Bush, whose son Neil is dyslexic. In Illinois 65 percent of the recipients of literacy grants from the secretary of state include a family component, among them the one at the Lawrence Center.
The family literacy effort at Lawrence kicked off in March with a pizza party, which drew 60 kids and four mothers. McDonald's, Hardee's and Pizza Hut have since provided gift certificates to those who attend regularly. Notwithstanding, enthusiasm has diminished on the moms' parts; they come infrequently. "A poor mother in Springfield has to worry about paying her light bill and putting food on the table," explains Chambers. "Reading is low on the list; the first thing is survival."
Barbara Pollard, one mother who normally shows up, never finished the 11th grade. Her husband is unemployed; she is on welfare. "I have reading problems, and this [the PALS] program helps me out," she says.
Chambers considers Pollard's coming a foot in the door to
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an entire tribe. ''Mrs. Pollard's got a sister," Chambers says, "and I'm trying to get her to bring the sister. I'm looking to influence the whole family. It does no good to work with kids — or even the mom — and have them all go back into an environment where nobody picks up a book."
Culturally vacant households tend to predominate, as well, at the Stateway Gardens housing project on Chicago's south side, where the Chicago Public Library runs a reading center. One small, book-filled room is devoted in large part to fostering family literacy by luring children and their parents to drop in. The effort began in 1987 when groups of eight- to 10-year-olds fanned out through the project high rises, distributing flyers. There followed a potluck dinner to entice family participation.
Now, every afternoon during the school year kids drift in, sometimes accompanied by their parents. The parents are there ostensibly to help their kids with homework. "But the homework is just the hook," says Tyrone Ward, the literacy site coordinator. "As the parents work on their kids' homework, their own weaknesses surface." When this happens, staffers encourage the parents to return for brush-up sessions held each morning.
Those sessions, attracting 10 or so adults each time, take place around a card table. People may read out loud to the group or concentrate individually on the newspaper, some poetry or a literacy text with the help of a tutor. For his part Ward has compiled oral histories of Stateway Garden residents, transcribed in colloquial language. One student, 31-year-old LaVern Moore, confesses that "reading ain't my favorite thing," but she reacted favorably to stories about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and slavery.
"In this community people want to tell you what they need," says staffer Shelley Maxwell, and so attention is paid to everyone's political views and tales of domestic discord. "People want to know what's on sale, and what's not. What does 'two for one' mean? How can they understand the rent statement, the lease and the CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] fares? One man wanted to know how to run for the local school council [Chicago's new form of school governance for each school]. We helped him decipher the method, and he won a seat on the council."
Volunteers by and large come from the housing project, underlining a difficulty common to literacy programs in poor neighborhoods. Whereas 89 percent of tutors in the secretary of state's literacy initiative are white, rarely does a white, middle-class tutor venture into a high-crime area to teach. The volunteers at Stateway change diapers and tend to children. But if they do tutor, even with low-level skills, that's OK with coordinator Ward: "The lack of polish works, and the students are probably more comfortable with them."
Another problem is more sobering. This year the Stateway literacy program lost three adults to murder; a fourth participant, a mother of six, allegedly jumped to her death one early morning after her boyfriend went into the kitchen after a knife.
"If Barbara Bush ever showed up here," says Ward, "we'd sure give her an education."
A pioneer on the second frontier — workplace literacy — Frank Young is what's called a "slurry master" at the Nabisco Inc. plant. In other words, he prepares the goop that turns into icing for Oreos. A hulking man with two tattoos on his left forearm, Young has worked at Nabisco for 30 years. He may have graduated from high school, but his reading skills have never reflected that. "If you don't use 'em, you lose 'em, and I did," he says. "As far as writing, I had no idea — I trembled when I had to spell."
Two developments caused Young to rectify his predicament. In 1989, when the firm of RJR Nabisco was scooped up in a corporate takeover, Young began to fear for his job. As it was, his friends on the line helped him get by with poor reading — filling in his blanks — but what if he had to secure a new job? Young worried that his lousy reading would prove a hindrance. In the meantime, Nabisco prepared to unveil a new computer system. "You'll have to read what's on the screen in order to operate the machine," Young says.
The upshot is that Young has been attending a learning center at Nabisco's Chicago plant. The center, operated by an instructor from Roosevelt University, is open five days a week for up to six hours a day. Workers are encouraged to drop in either before or after their shifts for assistance; they are not paid for their efforts, but they are made welcome. The center is a rectangular room near where Saltine crackers are packed. The coffee pot is always on, and bags of Chips Ahoy litter the long conference table. A small library features primers, magazines, crossword puzzles, word games and dictionaries.
Nabisco installed the learning center because the firm saw the skills of its work force lagging behind its requirements. Specifically, the computer system Nabisco is installing will require competent math and reading levels, but officials found the skill mastery of its work force to be alarmingly low. "Many of our people are reading at a third- or fourth-grade level," relates Nancy Cobb, human resource development manager at the Chicago plant, "and lots are foreign-born."
Similarly, in 1985, the Freeport plant of the Kelly-Springfield
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Tire Co. grew concerned about the literacy level of its workers. Officials screened the factory and found 20 percent to be functionally illiterate.
Nabisco's and Kelly-Springfield's experiences square with that of industry nationwide. The Business Council for Effective Literacy (BCEL), based in New York, says that 70 percent of industrial jobs require reading levels of between ninth and 12th grades — and another 15 percent demand higher. Yet one in five workers — or 23 million laborers — reads at the eighth-grade level or below.
Currently the Nabisco plant is spending $25,000 annually to serve some 20 students a day at the 2,800-employee plant, and Cobb believes the acquisition of computers will build enrollment higher. Since 1985, Kelly-Springfield has financed 50 of its poorly reading workers to attend Highland Community College in Freeport; those unable to read at all were placed in tutoring, but most wound up in small classes.
"Most employers just wish the problem would go away," asserts Paul Jurmo, BCEL's senior council program associate. "The company that is trying to survive won't put a lot of money into human-resource development. Or they want a quick-fix . . . six-month program. But that doesn't work. My impression is that Illinois is further along in this area than other states."
In the interim, thousands of Illinois illiterates are struggling to improve their skills, whether at a public library or community college, on the job or in the bosom of their families. "They come because they want to help themselves," says Doris Chambers of Springfield's Lawrence Center. "There is embarrassment at first, sometimes a feeling of being let down. But the impulse to self-determination usually overrides everything else — no matter that they're poor and uneducated, these folks just don't want to be dummies."
Grant Pick is a free-lance writer living in Chicago.
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