City Making Some Gains In Literacy, GED Efforts

After losing his leg in an accident, Isaac Love, 46, decided to try to get his general equivalency diploma. He will graduate Saturday.
After losing his leg in an accident, Isaac Love, 46, decided to try to get his general equivalency diploma. He will graduate Saturday. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006

Isaac Love was raised to work -- hard, manual labor -- which is what he did for nearly 30 years, from the day he dropped out of high school until the morning in January 2002 when he slipped from a garbage truck and fell beneath its wheels.

His right leg was instantly crushed below the knee. He lost a lot of blood. He looked up at the sky and saw "not stars, but, like, flickers." He thought, "Lord, don't let me die."

Paramedics appeared with an oxygen mask, and he woke up in the hospital. A doctor was saying, "I'm sorry, Mr. Love, but we had to take your leg."

Just like that, Love's days as a laborer were over. At the age of 42, the divorced father of two teenagers had to make new plans for his future. He decided to start by going back -- to get his high school diploma.

On Saturday, Love, now 46, will don a cap and gown and walk across the stage in the auditorium of the University of the District of Columbia as one of a growing number of D.C. residents earning their general equivalency diplomas. The number of GED graduates has more than doubled since 2000, thanks in part to expanded literacy programs and adult education classes funded through Mayor Anthony A. Williams's Lifelong Learning Initiative.

Last year, 569 District residents received GEDs, up from 281 five years earlier. So far this year, 504 have passed the GED exam, an eight-hour marathon of multiple-choice questions that covers the full range of high school learning, from algebra to science to nearly 500 years of U.S. history.

Yet the number of graduates, although rising, remains low in a city where an estimated 47 percent of adults have not finished high school and 38 percent, according to a new national study, read at or below a fourth-grade level. In its forthcoming annual report, the D.C. State Education Agency estimates that 150,000 adults in the District need help with basic literacy.

Fewer than 70,000 of those people, however, "have indicated any desire to take advantage of [literacy] services if offered and easily available," the report says. Still, most programs have long waiting lists. Despite the addition of thousands of city-funded slots under the mayor's initiative, the report says, just over 7,000 people are enrolled in literacy and adult education programs.

"On the one hand, we're doing great. We've doubled the number of people we're serving, including the number of GEDs. But that number is a drop in the bucket compared to the need," said Connie Spinner, the city's director of literacy programs.

District officials are trying to boost those numbers by reaching out to immigrants, single mothers, grandparents raising grandchildren, criminal offenders returning to the community from jail or prison, and young people who have recently dropped out of the District's troubled public schools. Over the past three years, the city has opened literacy centers in public housing projects and recreation centers and hired literacy coaches to coordinate services in parts of town where the need is greatest.

The city also has purchased a mobile literacy center -- a recreational vehicle known as the Trans.form.er and outfitted with desks, computers and literacy software -- dispatching it to community festivals and other events in the city.

One of the most effective programs is operated by Catholic Community Services, formerly known as Catholic Charities, in a renovated church near Gallery Place. Pilar Oberwetter, director of education programs, said her students are primarily black and Hispanic, and many are immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. A growing number are still in their teens, she said, having come to the early realization that "D.C. high schools don't serve the students in the best way possible."


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