I Couldn't Read The Words: Boosting Adult Literacy In D.c. (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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'I Couldn't Read the Words': Boosting Adult Literacy in D.C.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:44:11
So Washington D.C. is known for a lot of things, right? Our transient agency, sure, but when it comes to the people, this place attracts some of the most educated literate individuals in the country. But here's the thing, for every Ph.D. there are many more district residents who just struggle to read. In fact, more than a third of all D.C. residents lack basic literacy skills. That's 20 percent higher than the national average. Emily Friedman finds out what's being done to help clean up the record.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #1

13:44:41
Well, while the other students are hopefully on their way, let's review.

MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN

13:44:46
The Washington Literacy Council is one of roughly 60 non-profits in the D.C. area that teach adults how to read and write. Today, we're sitting in on an intermediate reading class, where six students are sounding out syllables, practicing the present tense and learning how to write complete sentences. Though they all have the same reason for being here, each student comes from a very different place.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE #2

13:45:08
I'm 51 years old, I have a company and I would do these contracts but I didn't really understand a lot of the reading part of it. I went all the way through school but it's like I was just passed on, you know, because of the way I carried myself. So they thought that I could read.

#1

13:45:26
What kind of syllable is that one, John?

MR. JOHN ROBINSON

13:45:28
My name is John Robinson, I'm 31 years of age. I couldn't read the words that I saw on the newspaper so that's when I knew I had a problem.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE #1

13:45:35
I'm 28, I work for the D.C. government. They're the one that recommend me to take classes like this so I can better myself.

MR. BOBBY ARNOLD

13:45:43
It began to ride, I mean, to, I'm sorry. My name is Bobby Arnold. I'm 68. I know I was struggling with my reading skill and everything because I didn't get no higher than the fifth grade.

FRIEDMAN

13:46:00
About 40 percent of the students at Washington Literacy Council of a high school diploma from D.C. public schools and still they struggle with reading, like Lorenzo.

LORENZO

13:46:08
Yes, I got my high school diploma, but it doesn't mean nothing.

FRIEDMAN

13:46:11
Lorenzo's 24, he went to Ketcham Elementary, Kramer Junior High and Anacostia High School.

LORENZO

13:46:16
You come in, you sign your name. As long as you don't bother the teacher or whatever, they pass you along. My high school diploma to me doesn't mean a thing.

FRIEDMAN

13:46:24
Dawn Thomas is the program director at D.C. Learns, a literacy advocacy coalition. She says you can trace Lorenzo's diploma right back to another legal document, a bill passed in 2001 called "No Child Left Behind."

MS. DAWN THOMAS

13:46:38
If your school didn't have significant students passing grade levels, then the state can come in and literally just take the funding from the school and the state would start running the school. So what we saw a lot of public schools doing is passing their students, handing out diplomas because of fear that that state would come in.

FRIEDMAN

13:46:59
D.C. Public schools acknowledges illiteracy is a cause for concern, and says it's addressing the issue through reading programs at all ages. But while it might be easy to blame the public schools, Dawn Thomas says the real problem isn't where the students are coming from, it's what happens after they ask for help.

THOMAS

13:47:16
What's happening is adult learners are coming in and then they're being placed on wait lists and the average wait list is now up to two months.

FRIEDMAN

13:47:23
And in those two months many students lose interest.

THOMAS

13:47:26
So our programs aren't able to offer the number of programs that are really needed.

FRIEDMAN

13:47:31
D.C. can offer about 10 percent of the classes the district actually needs according to D.C. Learns. To satisfy the demand the literacy centers would need a major boost in funding, funding which is all the more difficult to nail down without a senator or a voting representative.

THOMAS

13:47:46
Really a lot of it hinges what's coming up in the next few weeks with the budgets. I mean, I'm sure we're going to see cuts. Right now we just don't know how bad those cuts are going to be.

FRIEDMAN

13:47:54
And at the Washington Literacy Council, losing funds would mean cutting down the class schedule making the wait list even longer. Terry Algier is the executive director.

MS. TERRY ALGIER

13:48:03
For someone who reads and reads well and has been reading all their life, they think well if you don't read you must not try, 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.

FRIEDMAN

13:48:19
And often times the right motivation. For Lorenzo, it was becoming a dad.

LORENZO

13:48:23
I have to make an example for my son so it's like I read to him a Dr. Seuss book, "Cat in The Hat," or whatever I can on that. Every little bit to me helps him so that's why I keep on coming back.

FRIEDMAN

13:48:33
Turns out Lorenzo's right, studies show a child's literacy is most influenced by whether the parents can read. So every bit Lorenzo learns, his son will learn as well. I'm Emily Friedman.

SHEIR

13:48:45
You can find more information about D.C.'s literacy centers on our website, metroconnection.org.
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