It's trying harder, say literacy workers is Baltimore the City that reads?

November 14, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor Staff Writers Michael A. Fletcher and Peter Schmuck contributed to this report.

It was in December 1987 that Mayor Kurt Schmoke stated in his inaugural speech, "Of all the things that I might be able to accomplish as mayor of our city, it would make me the proudest if one day it could simply be said that this is a city that reads, that this is a city that waged war on illiteracy."

In February 1989, Mr. Schmoke chose the phrase "The City That Reads" as Baltimore's new official slogan. Soon benches at bus stops and city parks all over the city carried the slogan.

It's been nearly six years now since Mr. Schmoke said that Baltimore should declare war on illiteracy. It's become a banner of his office, attracting such celebrities as talk-show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Montel Williams, who have made public-service announcements, and Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., who, with his wife, Kelly, has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Ripken Adult Learning Center in North Baltimore.

But is the campaign working?

Those involved with Baltimore's literacy effort say an atmosphere has been created in which the city government and the private sector have joined to solve a problem that one literacy official describes as "immense." They cite increased funding for literacy efforts and greater citizen participation in those programs as evidence of progress.

Under the Schmoke administration, the Baltimore City Literacy Corp. was formed in September 1988 to coordinate literacy efforts within the city and to raise money from foundations and private sources. Its budget has increased nearly tenfold -- from $150,000 at its formation to $1.3 million this year.

"It's been a successful campaign," Mayor Schmoke says. "Look at the number of students participating in Race to Read, the summer reading program run by the Pratt. When I came on, the top number was about 300 -- now it's gone up to about 3,000 young people. The number of adult literacy centers has expanded, and we've created tie-ins with job-training programs. Also, in terms of awareness we've increased that. . . . But that is hard to measure in the short run."

One veteran literacy worker in the city says she, too, is generally pleased by the efforts of the Baltimore City Literacy Corp. "I'd probably give them at least a B," says Sister Judith Schmelz, director of the Learning Bank, a private Southwest Baltimore literacy agency that recently completed its 10th year of operation.

Critics of the city literacy drive point primarily to Mr. Schmoke's budget cutting for the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The Pratt's budget for fiscal year 1988 was $15.2 million. It has dropped every year since. By 1992 it was reduced to $12.8 million.

"That's why I think many citizens feel that the entire slogan has turned out to be a farce," says Boyse F. Moseley, the outspoken former principal of Northwestern High School and a commentator on WBAL radio.

Vincent Steadman, manager of the Pratt's Reisterstown Road branch library, points to the cutbacks in the Pratt's budget as evidence that "The City That Reads" drive has had "zero impact."

"It's not been backed up with anything," says Mr. Steadman, who has been with the Pratt for 25 years and has been manager at the Reisterstown Road branch for nine.

6* "It's an empty slogan, in my opinion."

Illiteracy remains

Nationally, illiteracy remains a serious problem, according to a report released in September by the U.S. Department of Education. It said that nearly half the adults in the United States have reading, writing and math skills so limited they are considered unable to function effectively in the workplace.

Although specific figures for the number of illiterate adults in Baltimore are not available, the Baltimore City Literacy Corp. estimates that 13 percent of all adults in the city have some functional illiteracy problems.

The dropout rate in the city's public high schools for 1991-1992 -- the most recent statistic available -- was 16.4 percent, or more than triple the statewide figure of 5.2 percent, according to the Maryland State Board of Education.

Also, the state estimated in a 1992 report that 38 percent of the city's adults have not finished high school, compared to 21 percent statewide, and that 34 percent had completed less than nine years of schooling, compared to 33 percent throughout Maryland.

But, as literacy workers point out, illiteracy can't be based just upon dropout rates. "It used to be that people could read and write, they were literate," says Sandy Newman, director of Baltimore County Literacy Works.

"That no longer applies. The new definition is based on different goals: You really have to be able to read and write at a level required to function in today's society." Ms. Newman could not provide specific figures about illiteracy in Baltimore County, but noted that 15.4 percent of the county population above 25 years old has less than a ninth-grade education.

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