Darnetta Hollis, a mother of four, survived domestic violence and overcame homelessness to earn her high school diploma at age 29. One of 36 graduates from Academy of Hope’s adult education program, Hollis told fellow students at their recent graduation: “We accomplished a goal that seemed at one time impossible. By taking our education seriously, we are saying we take our lives seriously.”
Today, Hollis is working as a temp for nonprofit organizations and taking classes toward certification as a paralegal, with the goal of a career in the legal profession — a far cry from the two low-wage, dead-end jobs she was juggling before she earned her high school diploma.
More than 64,000 D.C. adults lack a high school credential. With limited basic math, reading and digital literacy skills, these residents have difficulty following written instructions, completing paperwork, communicating effectively with colleagues or helping their children with homework. This undermines the job security of workers, the economic viability of local businesses and the well-being of families.
That is why we must do more to help men and women in our community improve their basic skills. The looming overhaul of the GED exam — which will include major changes such as moving from a paper-and-pencil test to a computer-based exam, as well as significantly more difficult questions — makes this an especially critical time to support adult education.
But funding for adult literacy has decreased steadily in recent years and falls far short of the need. The proposed budget of $4.3 million for fiscal 2014 would allow some 20 nonprofit organizations to serve approximately 3,100 adults. We are asking the D.C. Council to approve a total of $8.3 million($4 million from the mayor’s contingency wish list in addition to the $4.3 million that is in the budget) to push that total to 4,100 adults and to help nonprofits update curriculum and train teachers to prepare for impending changes to the GED.
Given all the demands on the city’s budget, why should literacy be a higher priority?
Literacy is one of those root problems that, if addressed with serious investments, will pay off in multiple ways. For instance, earning a diploma is not only good for adult students; it also is good for their children. Parents with strong literacy skills can better help their children do homework, study and succeed in school. And young adults whose parents have a high school diploma are more likely to complete high school than are those whose parents do not, according to a 2012 Urban Institute report.
India Clegg, a mother of three and participant in Southeast Ministry’s GED program, illustrates the key role parents’ literacy plays. She says, “I want my children to learn from me how important an education is. I know obtaining a GED is not the only thing that will improve our future, but it will give us options.”
In addition to improving children’s educational outcomes, a high school equivalency diploma is critical to helping residents of our region succeed at training and finding work and breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty.
With close to 80 percent of jobs in the District projected to require skills beyond high school by 2018, we can and must do more to support our residents’ most basic educational needs. The District can no longer afford to skimp on its investment in adult education; otherwise, a large portion of its residents will continue to be unprepared to fill future jobs and will be left out of the city’s well-being and growth.
As a community, we must come together to provide our residents with skills, but also hope. As Darnetta Hollis put it, “Graduation, for me, was not an end, but a beginning.”
Lecester Johnson is executive director of Academy of Hope. Terri Lee Freeman is president of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region.