Poring over city's adult literacy problem

Education: Those at the city's Literacy Summit will brainstorm ways to save adult reading programs.

October 13, 2004|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,SUN STAFF WRITER

Evelyn Inchauteguis works at the library and belongs to a book club.

Hardly notable. Except that everything about those two concepts defies some hard truths about Baltimore, particularly about people who grow up as Inchauteguis did -- in foster homes, a pregnant high school dropout, eventually a single mother of two on welfare. Baltimore is a place where 38 percent of the residents read at or below the fifth-grade level and where a third of the city didn't graduate from high school.

So when area politicians, business leaders, educators and nonprofit group representatives put their heads together tomorrow at Baltimore's Literacy Summit, they'll be trying to figure out how to create more people like Inchauteguis, who one day realized, "I'm not gonna make it out there without my diploma."

The idea for the summit, which will be held all day at the University of Baltimore, was born last year during dire times at Baltimore Reads, a city nonprofit organization that teaches adults to read and helps them pass their high school equivalency exams. The agency's state funding had been decimated, 12 workers had been let go and board members wondered whether decision-makers really understood Baltimore's adult literacy crisis.

"We want to signal to the top leaders in all sectors of the city who have investment in the success of the work force. ... If we want the city to move forward, we have to address this issue," said Marlene C. McLaurin, Baltimore Reads' chief executive officer.

When McLaurin started at Baltimore Reads in 2001, her budget was just over $4 million. Now it's half that. And it's not as if the need is shrinking -- if anything it's stronger than ever, with immigrants who don't speak English moving to the city every day.

All of the city's literacy programs are strapped. "All of us have waiting lists," said Sonia Socha, executive director of the South Baltimore Learning Center. "We have space to offer more classes, but we don't have the money."

As government money for adult education ebbs, agencies have tried to make up the difference with donations. But adult literacy is a tough sell, said Donna R. Blackwell, director of the agency's Ripken Learning Center. "People want to help kids," Blackwell said. "There's an idea of, `Well, school was free, they should have stayed in school.' But what they don't understand is life happens."

Life happened to Inchauteguis, and before she knew it, she was a single mother of two, with no degree and no job, living on welfare in a four-room house on Baltimore's west side.

"I was one of those people who get their money every month, and their food stamps, and it kind of made me lazy," she said. "But I decided I wanted better than this life."

Inchauteguis enrolled in Baltimore Reads' pre-General Educational Development certificate program in the fall of 1996 and left with her diploma the next May, studying late nights by candlelight when her gas and electricity were turned off.

"I was determined," said Inchauteguis, now 30 and working full time at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, enjoying her recent promotion to office assistant in the acquisitions department. At Baltimore Reads, Inchauteguis read her first book. Now she's not only surrounded by them, she's discussing them in the office book club.

Without a diploma or job-hunting skills, Inchauteguis couldn't find work -- even McDonald's turned her down. According to McLaurin, one of the most harmful results of Baltimore's illiteracy is its unskilled work force. Business leaders complain about the lack of competent job candidates, particularly in the burgeoning health care industry, she said.

Pamela Paulk, vice president of human resources for Johns Hopkins Hospital, will talk about these workplace issues at the summit. Though Hopkins has about 700 jobs available for people without high school degrees, those who have graduated have a leg up on about 3,000 better-paying ones.

The problem is, when Hopkins employees try for those better jobs, half of them fail the required reading and math test. Hopkins, one of the largest employers in the state, can afford on-site classes to help those workers. Smaller business can't.

Josephine Wilson, a cashier at a Stop Shop & Save supermarket, is working for her GED, hoping for college and a shot at one of those higher-paying jobs. The 42-year-old from Cherry Hill dropped out of school in her senior year when one of her sons came down with asthma -- she had four children by then.

"I need my high school diploma to let my kids know it's good to go back to school," she said.

Now that Wilson is learning what she might be able to achieve as an educated adult, the Literacy Summit organizers want to show city leaders what Baltimore is missing by having so few of them.

"I want to say, `Hey, Baltimore, we have a problem,' " said Socha of the South Baltimore Learning Center. "And is it being made a priority on the political agenda or the economic agenda? I don't think so."

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