Illiteracy Aid Found To Lag In District

Leslie Hines, 25, dropped out of middle school but is now in college after working his way through a GED program.
Leslie Hines, 25, dropped out of middle school but is now in college after working his way through a GED program. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 19, 2007

Only 8 percent of District residents with the lowest literacy skills get the remedial assistance they need, according to a new report by the State Education Agency.

Moreover, the wards with the worst literacy rates are not the ones receiving the most federal and local resources.

The State of Adult Literacy Report, scheduled to be delivered to the mayor and D.C. Council members today, found that nearly 36 percent, or 170,000, of the District's residents are functionally illiterate, compared with 21 percent nationally. The agency bills the report as "the first comprehensive review on the District's state of adult literacy."

Adults who have trouble doing such things as comprehending bus schedules, reading maps and filling out job applications are considered functionally illiterate.

The illiteracy rate also has direct economic consequences. The D.C. Chamber of Commerce, which contributed to the report, said the District lost up to $107 million in taxes annually between 2000 and 2005 because of a lack of qualified job applicants.

Nationally, according to the 2000 Census, individuals lacking a high school diploma or GED earned an average of $22,200 a year, about $7,800 less than those with a high school diploma or equivalency. Individuals with at least a bachelor's degree earned an average of $53,356 a year.

The situation is exacerbated by the high education levels employers seek. According to the report, 47 percent of the jobs in the District require a college or advanced degree, compared with 26 percent nationally.

Unlike previous studies, the State of Adult Literacy Report identified illiteracy rates by ward. At 50.4 percent, Ward 7 had the highest percentage of residents over age 16 who were functionally illiterate. Ward 8 ranked second, with 48.9 percent, and Ward 5 was third, with 48.2 percent. By contrast, Ward 3 fared the best, at 8.2 percent.

But the report also found that most of the federal and local resources to promote literacy were concentrated in Wards 1 and 4, where the illiteracy rates were about 42 percent.

The report was ordered by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) in 2003 as part of his four-year, $4 million adult literacy initiative.

Adults age 65 and older had the lowest literacy score of any group. The largest group of illiterate individuals were those who did not complete high school or did not speak English when they entered high school.

Connie Spinner, director of the State Education Agency, said the growing number of Hispanic and Ethiopian immigrants who aren't proficient in English contributed to the District's poor literacy levels.

The authors of the report suggest that the children of illiterate adults often end up illiterate themselves.

Leslie Hines's mother did not graduate from high school or get a GED, and by the time he dropped out of school in the sixth grade, he had been kicked out of two D.C. middle schools. Finally, during one of his many stays in a residential youth program, Hines decided that he wanted to learn to read. Hines said he realized that "there was no way I could do what I want to do -- have a future, rent an apartment, pay my bills or buy a house -- unless I had an education."

Four years ago, Hines received a GED after enrolling in two evening courses and a literacy day class under what was then Catholic Charities, now Catholic Community Services. Today, Hines, 25, is a freshman at Southeastern University, where he is a financial management major and hopes to get into real estate investment.

To help others like Hines, Spinner said, there are a number of adult learning programs in the city, such as D.C. Learns at 1612 K St. NW. The city has set up literacy centers at several One-Stop Career Centers, including those at 1500 Franklin St. NE and 2626 Naylor Rd. NE. There is also an adult learning center at the Income Maintenance Administration at 2100 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE in Anacostia. For more information, residents can call the State Education Agency at 202-274-7181.

Now a youth counselor with the Beyond Talent Catholic mentoring program, Hines said he tries to help kids who have dropped out of school learn that a future on the streets has limits.

"Even though you need street smarts, education in school is still very important," Hines said. "You have to have both to survive and live."

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