Literacy Programs Break Cycle Of Ignorance And Shame

Hidden Shame

More Than One Out Of 10 Countians Cannot Read

October 14, 1990|By ADAM SACHS | ADAM SACHS,Staff writer

It's hard to learn when you're isolated in a school coat room, and though Sharon Otten blames only herself for her drug problems, she says she's convinced her deficient literacy skills contributed to her troubles.

In the last six months, Otten has made strides toward escaping what she describes as an often "miserable" life, giving part credit to a Carroll literacy program for her rebirth.

Russell W. Cain, 51, of Taneytown, a reliable worker nearing his 20th anniversary with the Westminster Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Inc., says he believed he was the only person who couldn't read until he discovered and enlisted in the same program one year ago.

Only since then, he says, has he been able to unload the guilt he carried by hiding his secret for his entire adult life.

Literacy Providers of Carroll County, the umbrella organization for several county literacy programs, expects to serve in fiscal 1991 more than 800 clients, many of whom have suffered silently in shame and inflicted costs on Carroll taxpayers.

The group served about 760 in fiscal 1990, the first year of the state's Literacy Works campaign, which finances local education, employment and social agencies in an effort to eliminate illiteracy in Maryland by the year 2000.

Programs under Literacy Providers include Literacy Council of Carroll County Inc., offering one-on-one instruction; Carroll County Public Schools' Alternative Programs, focusing on adult basic education; Carroll Community College, providing computer-assisted learning; and the county Job Training Partnership, preparing individuals for employment.

The 1980 census, the latest figures available, estimated that 11,000 of the county's then 96,356 residents were illiterate. That figure was probably low, says Emily Ferren, Literacy Providers chairwoman. In 1987, a Maryland Department of Education survey found that 23,800 Carroll residents hadn't completed high school. Of those, more than 50 percent did not advance beyond the eighth grade.

The census indicated that about 400,000 Maryland adults are illiterate, diminishing the state's potential work force and economic strength.

Research shows that "functional illiterates" -- generally defined as those lacking the basic skills to function effectively in today's increasingly demanding work force and society -- are far more likely to be high school dropouts, juvenile delinquents, substance abusers, unwed mothers, welfare recipients, criminals and unemployed than those who are proficient readers. Those societal maladies drain government money.

Otten, who dropped out of school in the 10th grade with limited reading and math abilities, has fit several of those categories. Until recently, she says, she believed she was a hopeless case with no power to make choices to improve her life.

"I always wanted to have a good job, but I didn't think I had the intelligence," says the 33-year-old Baltimore native, now a patient at the Regan Recovery Center for substance abusers at Springfield State Hospital in Sykesville.

Otten's Literacy Council tutor, Nancy Lundberg, 39, of Gamber, has been proving her wrong since the two were paired in April.

"Sharon had no confidence in her ability at all," says Lundberg, a collector for C & P Telephone in Baltimore. "The first couple months, she said she couldn't do it.

"She has the ability. She's come a tremendous way on her own. She just had to be shown one-on-one."

Otten shares some characteristics typical of many of the students enrolling in Literacy Providers programs, say administrators. However, they say students come from diverse backgrounds and can't be lumped into one stereotype.

Adults often bring to their first session a defeatist attitude, demoralizingly low self-esteem, little confidence, a withdrawn personality and slumping posture, say the administrators.

Those negative traits usually are the result of past traumatic experiences, they say.

"Many of these people have been browbeaten from the time they were born," says Marian Carr, the Literacy Council coordinator. "They've never had a compliment. They come from dysfunctional families."

Some come from impoverished backgrounds in which they were denied educations. Others have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused, which hindered learning. Many have learning disabilities that were never addressed, causing embarrassment in school. Most were degraded and few were encouraged.

Illiteracy often is self-perpetuating in families in which parents had unpleasant experiences in school and education is not highly valued, says Ferren.

School systems, including Carroll's, have become better equipped to handle students with learning disabilities only in the last decade, in response to a 1975 federal law mandating a free education for those pupils.

The county's budget for special education has increased from $5.4 million to $7.9 million in the last three years, but vocal members of a Carroll learning disabilities advocacy group say programs are inadequate.

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