- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

Josephine Garland, educational program manager and teacher at the Academy of Hope in Columbia Heights, likens her adult learners to new flowers.

"They come to me like a rosebud all closed up, and the more they learn, the more they open and open, and then I say to them, 'Now you are a beautiful rose because you have grown so much,'" she says.

The Academy of Hope is one of dozens of programs supported in part by grants from the D.C. State Education Agency (SEA), which is sponsoring a "Walk for Literacy" on Oct. 12.

SEA's mantra is "if you know, teach. If you don't know, learn." Now more than ever, the ability to read and write is imperative.

SEA is taking learning to the streets to extend a lifeline through its programs that teach basic literacy, English proficiency, computer skills and workplace readiness.

Its second annual Walk for Literacy seeks to raise awareness about the District's literacy needs and collect funds for adult education programs throughout the city, such as "The Transformer." This 37-foot, high-tech Winnebago equipped with computers, high-definition television and other adult-learning tools provides Internet access to adult learners who have said that learning to read has transformed their lives.

Of the adult learners served by SEA programs in such locations at the Carlos Rosario School, Covenant House and Even Start at Mary's Center, 62 percent found employment and obtained a general education development or high school diploma, and 85 percent entered post-secondary education or training.

Last year, yours truly was as a guest lecturer in the "Writers and Readers" series at Sisterspace and Books, and I am serving as an honorary committee member for this year's literacy walk.

During the first literacy walk, which raised about $28,000, Anita Wilkins, 31, of Northeast, said she participated because she wanted to give something back to the program that helped her.

She was afraid to engage in conversations or read aloud because she did not know how to use "big words." Before enrolling in SEA classes, Ms. Wilkins would stare at words for a long time, but now she enjoys reading so much she spends a lot of her spare time in Sisterspace and Books at 15th and U streets NW browsing the shelves.

This year, Miss Garland said her students are excited about participating in the upcoming walk.

"Their participation demonstrates their willingness to get involved and shows they are not always begging but putting their own time and dollars in to support the instructional services that they get," said K. Brisbane, director of the D.C. State Education Agency for adult education, which is part of the University of the District of Columbia.

Literacy experts estimate that 40 million adults in America are illiterate. A whopping 62 percent of adults in the nation's capital function at the two lowest levels of reading proficiency.

To help one person learn to read is to help an entire family or maybe even an entire community raise its skills and quality of living. Studies by the National Center on Educational Statistics showed that children do better in reading comprehension in elementary schools with high parental involvement.

But too many parents themselves can't read.

Miss Garland said she had one student who was overjoyed because she was finally able to help her children do their homework.

A former social worker who initially got involved with the adult literacy programs by volunteering, Miss Garland herself used SEA services by obtaining a certificate in their teacher training program.

"I like helping people help themselves," she said.

Recent statistics indicate that the District has an increasing rate of unemployment and of families living below the poverty level. Employers report that the biggest barrier to hiring local adults is the lack of language and math skills.

"We need to make adult literacy a priority," said Miss Brisbane.

Last year, the District spent $1.4 million or $382 for each of the 3,667 persons served on literacy services.

"We have to try undo what was done in the public schools and beef up literacy skills need in 2002," she said. "How does that happen with $382?"

Like most city agencies, SEA is facing budget cuts, and its officials estimate the District needs $32 million annually for literacy services.

SEA programs are offered free or at low cost to those over 16, and some are designed to meet the needs of people who are homeless, have been institutionalized, have disabilities or speak English as a second language.

If more funds are not made available for folks like her blossoming students "it will have a devastating impact on them," said Miss Garland.

For more information about the literacy walk, call Erica Clark at 202/833-9771.

To register for the walk, call 866/832-2289 or visit the Web site www.dcadultliteracy.org.

For more information about D.C. literacy programs, call the SEA office at 202/274-7181.

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