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High Price For Low Literacy

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Students in a health class at St. Mary’s Center in northwest D.C. are learning different body parts. They are signing "hands."
Kavitha Cardoza
Students in a health class at St. Mary’s Center in northwest D.C. are learning different body parts. They are signing "hands."

At 13 years old, Claudine Edwards had a baby and dropped out of school. When she did, her dreams of becoming a nurse evaporated. Now she's 53 and has come to Academy of Hope, a nonprofit in southeast D.C., to ask about classes.

Edward's motivation for coming back to school is to be able to read baby books to her neighbor's grandchildren. This is the third time she's enrolled in adult education classes. She stopped coming the first time because of an abusive relationship; the second time was after she took the GED test — and failed.

“I went to school everyday,” she says. “It just felt like my heart dropped. To this day, I could cry.”

Edwards is like many adult learners who are very fragile, with little confidence. They are already so discouraged that any setback can be devastating. It's taken Edwards three years to summon up the courage to try again.

"I think about all these years where I could have probably been. A lot of my goals could've been accomplished. But I'm not giving up."

She lost her job as a cleaner during the recession, and for five years she's been unemployed. Edwards relies on food stamps, and her daughter pays her rent.

When Cathy Walsh, a staff member at Academy of Hope, brings up money, Edwards tenses up. When she hears fees costs $10 for three months, Edwards looks relieved. But then a moment later, she inquires about volunteer work.

Walsh explains the school's "service hours" payment system, in which Edwards can volunteer after class to put away chairs and clean the whiteboard. That way she'll only have to pay a third of the fee — $10 for three months of classes. But Edwards can't afford even that. She stares at the papers.

“Can you give me a copy of this, so I can show it to a loved one ‘cause I’m not working.” she asks Walsh.

Mismatched skills

D.C. boasts a higher percentage of advanced degress than any of the 50 states. But there are also 85,000 people like Claudine Edwards who can’t read and write very well, and who are largely invisible.

Most of these dropouts pay a higher price for low literacy. Two out of every three adults without a high school diploma in D.C. don't have jobs.

Emily Durso, with the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE), says adult education is the first step toward employment. She gives the example of Costco opening in D.C. a few months ago.

They might be overdosing their children, and it’s absolutely unintentional

The Department of Employment Services had 800 people to apply for 165 jobs. The biggest barrier for people to apply wasn't willingness to work, she says, but to go through a screening process and read and comprehend Costco's literature.

For those who do get hired, it often means low-end jobs — part time or seasonal — with no hope of advancing. In tough times, they're often the first ones laid off.

Limited skills affect the economy

Stephen Fuller, an economist with George Mason University, says the whole region suffers when so many adults have limited skills.

“You train a worker, they go to work, earn money, spend their money, support other jobs, they pay taxes, earn a living,” he says. “So the return on investment, if done right, is extremely high, and it surprises me that we haven’t taken control of this.”

He says most of the unemployed workers looking for jobs just need some training to get back in the workforce. They have skills, but may not have the right skills.

In D.C., the government spends $4 million a year on nonprofits that educate adults. That's half of what it spent back in 2007.

Some adult educators say improving adult literacy rates would not only make for a more prosperous city, but also a healthier one.

Low literacy affects health

Students in a health class at St. Mary's Center in northwest D.C. are learning different body parts. This helps them tell a doctor what hurts during a visit to the clinic.

Alis Marachelian runs the health education program at St. Mary's, whose clinic serves approximately 25,000 patients each year. Marachelian says the barrier between caregivers and patients who can't read, write or speak is a "huge problem, every day."

“We use illustrations for medicines, we would draw the sun and the moon as to when to take the medicine,” says Marachelian. “Which one you take with food, with an icon of a food item. Sometimes we help them put it in a pillbox because they can’t count either.”

Marachelian says for some common conditions such as diabetes, the least compliant patients are the ones with low literacy. It's not that they're resisting medication; they just don't know how to measure the amount of insulin or understand the potentially fatal consequences of a wrong dose. And often, she says, a parent's low literacy affects their children's health.

“For example, giving cough syrup, measuring how much they might be overdosing their children and it’s absolutely unintentional. For asthma, some inhalers have the same color, so confusing the ones that are long acting or short acting is a problem.”

You think about the civic fabric of our communities and what life could have been like. You realize the dropout epidemic is a huge loss to our nation.

Marachelian says when children's symptoms fail to improve, doctors may increase the dosage or change the medication, thinking it's not working. There are more emergency room visits. Children have to miss school and parents take off from work. With a chronic condition, she says, this could mean the child falls behind academically or the parent gets fired.

Teaching the next generation

Parents who don't read well themselves also have a hard time helping their children in school.

"There is a sense of humiliation that they're somehow going to be embarrassed if they approach the school, because of what they don't have and don't know," says Valarie Ashley, who runs Southeast Ministries, an adult education center in D.C.

Research shows parental involvement improves a child's academic performance, resulting in higher test scores, better attendance and improved graduation rates. And Ashley says she's seen that happen in her own family. She was 10 when her mother went back to school at 37. Overnight, they started to sit around the dining table every evening and do homework together.

“The point came fairly quickly, where she could then supervise and help us with some of our homework,” says Ashley. “She also started to advocate for us in school, and she didn’t do that before.”

But perhaps the biggest cost is one that can't be measured. It's the invisible cost of what might have been. John Bridegland, with Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm in D.C., calls dropping out a "dream buster." Students who drop out usually don't vote and don't volunteer.

“With millions of students dropping out every year, it’s like generations of talent needlessly lost,” she says. “You think about the civic fabric of our communities and what life could have been like. You realize the dropout epidemic is a huge loss to our nation.”

It may have seemed easy to drop out of school, but the path after that is hard -- a lifetime of dreams that lie just out of reach. It means a business not started, a song unwritten, a bedtime story never read.

Even those who go back to school often struggle to earn a diploma and hold a steady job. But for many of yesterday's dropouts, there's something else at stake as well: something less tangible but no less significant: A chance to emerge from the shadows and finally be seen.

[Music: "Time To Learn" by Acoustic Bop Kids from Acoustic Instrumental Music for Kids]

Video: D.C. Residents Share Thoughts On Adult Education

[Music: "Time To Learn" by Acoustic Bop Kids from Acoustic Instrumental Music for Kids]

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