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Between The Lines: Improving D.C.'s Literacy Rate

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Two adult-literacy students sort through syllable flashcards at the Washington Literacy Council.
Emily Friedman
Two adult-literacy students sort through syllable flashcards at the Washington Literacy Council.

The Washington Literacy Council is one of roughly 60 nonprofits in the D.C. area working to clean up that record. Here adults learn how to read and write. In an intermediate reading class of six students, it is clear thought they all have the same reason for being here, each student comes from a very different place.

"I have a company. And I would do these contracts, but I didn't really understand the reading part of it," says a woman, 51, who would prefer not to disclose her name.

"I knew I struggled with reading when I couldn't read the words that I saw on newspaper," says John Robinson, 31.

Another student works for the D.C. city government, and says it was his supervisors who recommend he take reading classes.

There are students who dropped out of school, but roughly 40 percent of the students at Washington Literacy Council have a high school diploma from D.C. Public Schools.

"Yeah, I got my high school diploma, but it doesn't mean nothing," says Lorenzo, 24. Lorenzo went to Ketcham Elementary, Kramer Junior High and Anacostia High School. "You come in you sign your name, as long as you don't bother the teacher or whatever, as long as they pass you along."

Dawn Thomas, program director at D.C. Learns, says you can trace Lorenzo's diploma right back to another legal document –- No Child Left Behind -- passed in 2001.

"If your school didn't have significant students moving on, passing grade levels, then the state could move in and take the funding from the school and the state would start running the school. So we saw a lot of public schools doing is handing out diplomas in fear that the state would come in," Thomas says.

In an emailed message to WAMU, D.C. Public Schools acknowledges illiteracy is "a cause for concern," and says it's addressing the issue through reading programs at all ages.

While it might be easy to blame the public schools, Thomas says, the real problem isn't where the students are coming from -- it's what happens after they ask for help.

"Adult learners are coming in and they're being placed on wait lists. And the average wait list is now up to two months," she says.

And in those two months, many students lose interest. Thomas says D.C. is able to offer about 10 percent of the classes the District actually needs. To satisfy the demand, the literacy centers would need a major boost in federal funding, which is all the more difficult to nail down without a Senator or voting representative.

"Really a lot of it hinges on what's coming up in the next few weeks with budgets. I'm sure we're going to see cuts, right now we just don't know how bad those cuts are going to be," Thomas says.

Losing funds would mean cutting down the class schedule at most learning center, such as the Washington Literacy Council. And fewer classes makes the wait list even longer.

"For someone who reads and has been reading all their life, they think if you don't read, you must not try, you must be lazy, or stupid and that's one of the biggest misconceptions. Struggling readers are often very high achievers; they just needed a different approach to learn to read," says Terri Algire, the Washington Literacy Council's executive director.

Most often, students also need the right motivation. For Lorenzo, the DCPS graduate, his motivation is being a good father.

"I have to make an example for my son. I read to him, Dr. Seuss or Cat in the Hat. As much as I know, I pass on to him. So, every little bit to me helps him," he says.

Turns out, that's exactly right. Studies show a child's literacy is most influenced by whether the parents can read. So, every little bit Lorenzo learns, his son will learn as well.

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