The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘I couldn’t even read the diploma.’ Now he struggles to learn what schools didn’t teach him.

An 8-year-old practices reading with a volunteer mentor in the Everybody Wins! literacy program, which operates in several D.C. public schools.
An 8-year-old practices reading with a volunteer mentor in the Everybody Wins! literacy program, which operates in several D.C. public schools. (Astrid Riecken/FTWP)
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Willie Nolan has a car, but he can't drive it.

He has the hands of a craftsman, but he can't follow blueprints.

He has a high school diploma. But he can't read.

This is what happens when schools put statistics over students, when they value smoke and mirrors over real academic achievement.

"I sat in a classroom doing nothing," Nolan said. "And then, all of sudden, they told me I was graduating. And I couldn't even read the diploma."

Nolan is 57 years old and graduated from the D.C. public school system in 1982. But a newly released investigation by the Office of the State Superintendent showed that at least 1 out of every 10 students graduating from a D.C. public high school last year missed most of the academic year. How well do you think some of those students can read?

D.C. Public Schools have been churning out Willie Nolans for decades. And in the latest gambit to manufacture a success story, it has created a world of hurt for scores of students who barely made it to school by sending them out in the world with diplomas.

"I'd say the majority of them — 90 percent — are DCPS graduates," Jimmie Williams, who runs the Washington Literacy Center, which has taught hundreds of adults to read since 1963 and estimates that there are 90,000 adults in the nation's capital who are illiterate.

Want to hear the worst part of all this? (Yes, it gets worse.)

His center and two other groups — Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, and South East Ministry — that have served as the school district's safety net for decades all lost grant funding from the city this year. The literacy center lost $175,000 in grant money, Williams said.

The letter he got from the state superintendent's office said the literacy center's proposal "did not fully demonstrate the organization's capacity to provide Integrated Education and Training (IE&T) services in accordance with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) and as such, the proposal was not selected for funding."


"They're talking about Workforce Innovation? They're missing the foundations of a workforce," Williams said. "That's literacy."

The school system needs to teach our kids to read. No excuses. No smoke and mirrors. And it needs to keep supporting the places that offer help to the thousands of adults who graduated with useless diplomas.

A lot of them are just like Nolan. He is a custodian in the Southwest D.C. headquarters for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, working the night shift. He wants more.

At 57, he got tired of the lies, tired of pretending to have bad eyesight so he could ask someone at work to read something, tired having that car and being afraid to ever drive anywhere new because he can't read signs. And he got tired of dreaming of being a carpenter.

"I could do the work. I'm good with my hands. And I was always really good with numbers," Nolan said. "But then I got to Algebra II, and I stopped doing math, because at that level, you have to read words. I can't read a blueprint. And I want to be able to read a blueprint."

So he now humbles himself with hours of tutoring and classes at the Literacy Volunteers and Advocates (LVA) center in the District, where he does the work he remembers in kindergarten.

"That's what I have to conquer now, sounds," Nolan said.

The adults who do this work are persistent and determined. And it often takes years, said Kenneth Parker, the executive director of LVA.

It's fulfilling work for Parker, who spent years as a middle school principal in D.C. Public Schools, bowing to the undeniable pressure to move students along, even if they weren't ready.

"We had individuals coming through in the sixth grade who were reading three levels behind," Parker said. "And I was just having this conversation with myself this morning. All those students. They didn't learn to read. The [DCPS administration] did it very subtly. They didn't specifically say: 'You need to move these kids along.' But every year, they told me: 'You need to get these scores to rise.' And I knew what that meant."

The new D.C.: Outside an REI that sells tents, desperate people are living in them

The city is full of people like the 54-year-old man I talked to who is a regular at the Washington Literacy Center.

His bosses don't know that he can't read. Some of his family members don't even know.

He was the leader of his construction crew years ago. He got out of high school and was making good money. What did he care about literacy?

But he watched the other guys on his crew get promoted. Management, bigger jobs, one after another. And he fell behind. Now, he's a dishwasher and desperately wants to learn to read.

"My world is like living in the dark," he said. "And I'm constantly, constantly trying to see the light."

The classes aren't easy. He wants to quit some days. But he knows he can't.

"It's like baby steps," he said. "Like I'm a newborn and I have to learn to walk."

He used to blame himself for not being able to read. And though he won't let himself off the hook, he knows the school system failed him and continues to fail so many others.

We made a deal. When he's ready, when he can read a book to me, he'll let me use his name and take his picture for The Washington Post.

"I want other people to know my story," he said. "I want them to come out of the shadows. I want my story to help others."

Twitter: @petulad

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