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Literacy woes hamstring Detroit's revival

When Averil Dixon was a senior at Mumford High School in Detroit, the only people who knew he couldn’t read or write were his family, a few teachers and his closest friends -- the ones who helped with his homework.

“I was a cool kid,” said Dixon, 19. “If everybody knew I couldn’t spell or read all that well, they would have made fun of me.”

Dixon had more company than he knew. Nearly one in two Detroit adults -- 47 percent of the population -- are functionally illiterate, meaning their lack of reading and writing skills affects their daily lives.

And despite the best efforts of dozens of nonprofit tutoring agencies, the numbers have not been improving.

“It’s a crisis,” said Margaret Williamson, executive director of Pro-Literacy Detroit.

Williamson is convinced that a big reason so many adults are illiterate is that too many Detroit Public Schools use "social programming" to pass them from one grade to the next, regardless of their reading and writing skills.

"We have high school graduates in here who can't read their diploma," she said.

Literacy fact box

* One out of three working-age Michigan adults -- 1.7 million people -- lack the basic skills or credentials to attain family-sustaining jobs and contribute to the state's economy. (U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. 2006 Public Use Microdata Samples)

* Of these adults, 692,000 do not have a GED or high-school diploma. (U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. 2006 Michigan Age by Educational Attainment for the Population 18 and Over)

* 44 percent of Michigan's adults have very minimal literacy skills, no greater than those necessary to perform simple and everyday activities. (Michigan League for Human Services, 2007, Fixing the Leaky Pipeline: Why Adult Education and Skills Training Matters for Michigan's Future)

* Michigan is ranked 44th in terms of enrollment in state administered adult basic education programs per 1,000 adults with less than a high-school diploma. (The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, 2008, Adult Learning in Focus: National and State-by-State Data)

Information provided by Dominican Literacy Center, Detroit

While bright students can be found in every high school, she believes that only four -- Renaissance High School,Cass Technical High School, Martin Luther King High School and the Detroit High School for the Fine & Performing Arts -- do right by their students.

"But if four can do it, they all can," she said. "We need a uniform system."

The situation is expected to improve, however, now that a new agency has formed to coordinate literacy efforts and raise money for nine tutoring agencies in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

Reading Works is a volunteer board of local leaders determined to see 80 percent of metro Detroiters computer literate and reading at least at a ninth-grade level by 2020, so they’re ready to work as Detroit pulls out of its long-standing recession.

"We want to make sure that when that growth happens and employers are looking for employees to fill those spots, that they have a pool of qualified applicants right here in their own city," said Executive Director Susie Schechter, Reading Works’ only paid employee. "It's discouraging to hear from an employer that, `Yeah, we do have job openings. But the pool of applicants that came to fill it was really grim.”’

Deborah Stewart Anderson, associate director of the Detroit Literacy Coalition, believes that most of Detroit’s problems stem from its reliance on the auto industry.

“In the past 30-40 years, people could make a great income while providing a pretty good life for themselves and their families’ by getting jobs in the auto plants,” she said. “Education was something that was not a priority for them, their children were to be the beneficiaries’ of this good life but many of them, because of the societal tone toward education, and the drastic changes in many urban school systems also missed out on becoming really literate.”

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing agrees that the days of low-skill manufacturing jobs with high pay are gone.

“The city's adult illiteracy rate is a serious impediment to our ability to create jobs,” he said. “Providing residents with skills to obtain employment in job growth areas such as health care, green manufacturing and technology, and the creative economy is essential.  Improving our adult literacy rate will help attract jobs and strengthen our tax base. Attracting business and good-paying  jobs depends on having a qualified work force, he said. 

“The city of Detroit's reported unemployment is approximately 20 percent, but that rate fails to account for the underemployed and those who have stopped looking,” said Bing. “Improving the literacy rate will attract new businesses.  While there has been a significant increase in employers locating downtown, many of those jobs are going to suburban residents. We need to do a better job of preparing Detroiters for these jobs and making Detroit once again a destination for jobs and investment.

New group seeks to combat root causes

Reading Works is a collaboration led by Wayne State University Honors College Dean Jerry Herron, Detroit Free Press Editor and Publisher Paul Anger, and Robert Cohen, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

"Any problem is too big to combat if you scale the problem at a cosmic level,” said Herron. “And when the scale is cosmic, it's also easy for individuals just to throw up their hands and say, 'This is huge! What can one person do?' Which often means that individuals end up dong nothing at all for lack of a practical means of engaging and doing good.”

The problem has gotten worse in recent years, Anderson said, noting: “Older people continue not to get the help that they need and too many young people are not completing their education or they are being mis-educated in our school systems.”

News about Reading Works’ collaborative efforts has caused a flood of requests from people interested in giving their time and expertise to become volunteer tutors, said Anderson, who also eagerly awaits some much needed funding.

Schechter said dozens of literacy agencies operating in Wayne, Macomb and Oakland counties have been working in isolation, with inconsistent, inadequate funding and waiting lists of learners.

The Reading Works Alliance will raise private donations to distribute among nine agencies with a proven track record, a potential to serve more clients, and the understanding that they'll be funded based on bringing in and retaining more adult learners, who either move up a grade level or -- ideally -- move on to get a GED.

The leaders of these nine agencies have met three times now.

Reading Works wants to address the problems that have kept learners from reaching their goals, whether that was due to an inability to find transportation to the tutoring site, or a lack of child care.

"We're going to hopefully connect these agencies to other social service providers that will decrease the barriers that get in the way for these learners," said Schechter. "That may mean buying gas cards, helping an agency fix their van, or making a connection with someone who can do a vision screening."

In laying out his case for educational reform in April, Gov. Rick Snyder noted that fewer than 50 percent of students are proficient in writing, and 238 Michigan high schools have no college-ready students based on ACT exam results.

As sobering as the statistics are, Williams said success stories are encouraging.

One man learned to read at 42 and has now been happily taking the bus to his job for three years. Another man said no one in his family could read and, now that he was a father, he wanted to break the cycle. A young woman showed up for every tutoring opportunity and found a job with a nonprofit while going to college. 

Issue extends beyond Detroit

In Washtenaw County, one in six adults is functionally illiterate. Last year, 739 tutors served 1,844 adults through Washtenaw Literacy’s free, customized tutoring program.

Alison Austin, program administrator at Washtenaw Literacy, noted that literacy levels are a greater predictor of health status than age, income or race.

“It can’t be a coincidence that 70 percent of the inmates in our prison system fall in the lowest literacy levels,”  said Austin,  who was disappointed that a recent training session for new tutors was less than half full, and hopes that continued media focus on the problem alerts potential volunteers to the need.

Averil Dixon’s future became a lot more promising on the day he became so frustrated that he couldn’t read the name of a street he was looking for, he signed up for weekly tutoring sessions at Pro-Literacy Detroit. Now he’s a student at Henry Ford Community College on his way to an associate’s degree in heating and cooling.

He still doesn’t like to read. But he can. And that’s making all the difference.

“Now I’d tell everyone they need to learn to read really well,” said Dixon, 19. “They miss way too much if they don’t.”

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