D.C. to Push Education For Adults
Some Fear Campaign May Mean Longer Lines
By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page B01
The D.C. government is planning a major campaign next month to increase public awareness of the city's adult education programs, part of an initiative that Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) announced a year ago to reduce adult illiteracy.
Williams announced the four-year adult literacy initiative in July 2003, and city officials said they have spent about $4 million in federal funds during the first year. They said that they have succeeded in expanding capacity of public and private programs across the city and are on course to draw more adults -- both immigrants and native-born Americans -- into classes to improve their English reading and writing skills and help them get a high school equivalency degree.
"We have been working to learn where [in the city] there is the least amount of capacity and trying to plug the holes," said C. Vannessa Spinner, who oversaw the first year of the initiative as head of the D.C. State Education Office but resigned that post last month. "We also expect the social marketing campaign to encourage new volunteers to programs."
But with the launch of the Read Out Loud awareness campaign -- designed to include posters, radio and TV spots, and Metro bus and rail signs -- set for Aug. 5, officials said they do not know how many slots are open in programs across the city. They said it is difficult to get a complete picture because there are more than 180 such programs, which vary in size and in the services they offer.
Of the 56 programs that responded to a survey conducted by a consulting firm, 88 percent said they are generally full and 52 percent had waiting lists that averaged 65 people. Kairos Management, the firm that conducted the poll for the city, reported the results in a study released in January.
David Rosen, a consultant hired by the Fannie Mae Foundation to help the city with the literacy initiative, said he anticipates longer waiting lists after the public awareness campaign but thinks that would be a positive result. He pointed to a similar effort he led in Boston years ago that resulted in waiting lists, which prompted the city to make more resources available. Some veteran D.C. educators, however, said that the District is unlikely to add resources because of its financial crunch.
"To promise them a program and then have them end up on a waiting list doesn't seem fair," said Marcia Harrington, chief of the D.C. Adult Literacy Resource Center at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library.
The mayor launched his initiative to combat what city officials have long known is a serious problem. City officials routinely say that at least one-third of the adults in the city need literacy services and that about 10 percent are being served. The estimate of need, however, is based on a 10-year-old survey by the federal government; a new federal survey is underway.
The initiative began last summer with the city paying D.C. Agenda, a nonprofit group, $1.36 million to hire 20 "lifelong learning coaches" who were assigned to increase the capacity of adult education programs throughout the city. Sixteen coaches were sent to existing programs and four were asked to start new ones. Some coaches taught students, while others helped with tasks such as recruiting teachers or finding additional space.
Patricia Evans, an administrator in the D.C. State Education Office who is helping to run the initiative, said officials carefully matched the talents of the coaches with the needs of individual programs. She said almost 1,000 adults in 14 programs were helped by the effort.
But in interviews, more than a dozen coaches or program directors said it would be hard to estimate how many people were served because there was no systematic monitoring. D.C. Agenda went out of business in spring, and the oversight of the coaches' work was switched to the city's Children and Youth Development Trust Corp., which had received $2 million in federal money from the city to fund literacy providers.
Some program directors and other educators also said that some of the coaching assignments were made hastily. A few coaches resigned during the year, including one at Citiwide Computer Training Center, where executive director Anthony Chuukwu said, "The individual that they gave to us wasn't interested in providing the service the way it was defined."
Some coaches, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, said they did not get the support from the city that they had expected. For example, several coaches said educators with no experience in adult education performed their leadership training.
A number of program directors, however, strongly praised the coaches they were given. Connie Bumbaugh, deputy director at Literacy Volunteers NCA in Northwest Washington, said coach Gretchen Whitney helped with volunteer and student recruitment, taught classes and performed other tasks. Bob Crittenden, executive director of Living Wages, a program with two sites in Southeast Washington, said he was "extremely pleased" with his two coaches.
Some program directors and other literacy specialists suggested that the money spent on the coaches should have been used to beef up a few well-established programs that could have served as models for other programs.
The literacy initiative is designed to run through the end of Williams's term, although the third and fourth years are in the planning stages. Spinner said it is hard to plan too far in advance because funding commitments are made annually.
Some educators said that other cities have launched longer-term plans in similar circumstances and that the District initiative should be aimed at putting in the infrastructure to build a citywide system over the next 10 years.
The D.C. effort "is not designed to . . . have the greatest impact over the greatest amount of time," said Nile Faulkner, who served as a coach and did not reapply when her one-year contract ended.
The city has awarded $100,000 to D.C. Learns, a coalition of adult education programs in the District, to design an Internet clearinghouse of information on adult education. The information is now on the group's Web site, www.dclearns.org, though it does not include a list of available programs. The coalition also will operate a hotline that residents can call to find a program to match their needs.
Asked whether there are enough openings, Jeff Carter, the new director of D.C. Learns, said: "We are working really hard to make sure that everybody who calls the hotline is directed to services with the understanding that there are only so many slots."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company