When Adrian McNamee moved to Washington from Jamaica five months ago, he planned to go to college to study computer technology.
Instead, the 19-year-old landed in a low-paying maintenance job after college officials refused to recognize his high school diploma.
"I was disappointed," McNamee said. "I just want to earn a bachelor's degree so I can get the job I always wanted."
A new program sponsored by the District government nudged McNamee a step closer to that dream. He's been participating in an innovative educational initiative that allowed him to work to improve his reading comprehension skills, increase his vocabulary and prepare for the General Educational Development diploma, which he took last week. Soon, he hopes, he'll be able to enroll in the University of the District of Columbia.
McNamee is typical of residents whom D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) talked about when he announced a literacy initiative during his 2003 inaugural address. The city hopes to attract 10,000 District residents who want to enhance their reading and math skills, attain educational goals and improve their job skills through the "Read Out Loud! Lifelong Learning Initiative."
City officials have opened four learning centers run by directors, or learning coaches, who help adults overcome educational shortcomings.
The doors of the Comcast Lifelong Learning Center opened last month in Brookland Manor Apartments, where McNamee lives. The literacy program, funded with federal and District dollars, also gets donations from Comcast, Fannie Mae, Verizon and McKissack & McKissack, an architectural firm. The apartment complex, in Northeast Washington, donated the office space. A center also opened recently at 1250 U St. NW, and another is scheduled to open Oct. 26 at Bald Eagle Recreation Center, at Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and Joliet Street SW.
Margaret Worthy, a District government official, said almost 900 adult students have been served by 14 existing literacy centers.
The District has one of the lowest levels of literacy in the nation, according to national statistics. At least 37 percent of adults older than 25 have problems reading a job application and filling it out properly, following a map and comprehending instructions during their daily routines, according to "The State of Literacy in America," a government report. The national average is 23 percent, the report said.
Although 40 percent of District residents have a bachelor's degree, 20 percent do not have a high school diploma, according the U.S. Census Bureau.
"A lot of the children that we missed become adults who may be unemployed, underemployed, incarcerated or receiving services from TANF" (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), Worthy said. "These are adults who need to improve their lives."
The concept of lifelong learning was born of the need to persuade adults that it's never too late to learn, Worthy said.
"It's fine to enlist in college, but if you don't have the tools, then you need an opportunity to be able to start where you are," she said. "The reason for the word 'lifelong learning' is we wanted to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to learn at any age."
When Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner William Shelton of Ward 5 in Northeast heard about the city's commitment to literacy, he jumped at the chance to place a center in Brookland Manor.
"The lack of literacy is such a private issue," said Shelton, who has been involved in the Brookland Manor community for 14 years. "People feel much more comfortable in their community. If they're willing to come somewhere and finish [their education], we ought to be the one to foster it."
The person charged with fostering the adult educational program in Brookland Manor is Rita Daniels, a learning coach for more than 20 years. Unlike some adult literacy programs, the Brookland Manor center accepts participants as young as 16 who are high school dropouts.
"We're different because it's not a typical high school setting," Daniels said. "You work at your own pace, and you don't have to listen to me lecture all day."
In addition to the facility's state-of-the-art computer lab, the powder blue office also provides a library and a reading corner with colorful posters and books for parents to read to their children.
Daniels coaches students such as Beverly Simms, a middle-age mother who dropped out of high school nearly 30 years ago.
"My interest wasn't there," said Simms, 46, who has worked in retail sales, performed clerical duties and taken computer training. Simms had been mulling over getting her diploma for a year when the learning center opened within blocks of her home.
"I owe it to myself," Simms said. "There's so much I'd like to do, but without a high school diploma, I'm very limited. I'm going to give myself to age 50, and I hope to accomplish my goal to get a degree in social work."