- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 16, 2001

What happens if you are one of the 40 million illiterate adults in America and can't write a note alerting your family of your unexpected departure? Or what if you're frantic about missing family members, but can't read the note they left informing you of their whereabouts?
Now more than ever, everyone needs to let someone else know where they are or supposed to be at all times. Now, more than ever, the ability to read and write is imperative.
One worthwhile agency in the city, the D.C. State Education Agency (SEA), is doing an impressive job in taking learning to the streets to extend literacy. "If you know, teach. If you don't know, learn," is the SEA's mantra.
Tomorrow, "the Transformer," a 37-foot high-tech Winnebago equipped with computers, HDTV and other adult-literacy learning tools, will be christened at the University of the District of Columbia, where SEA offices are housed. It's essentially a modern-day bookmobile that provides Internet access to adult learners, many of whom have said that learning to read has transformed their lives.
On Saturday, SEA sponsored the first 3K Walk For Literacy to raise funds for adult-education programs like the Transformer. Walkers appropriately started at the Martin Luther King Library downtown.
Last week, I was a guest lecturer in the "Writers and Readers" series at Sisterspace and Books attended by 50 students and teachers enrolled in SEA reading programs across the District.
In June, SEA sponsored a "Faith-Based Literacy Weekend," in which a dozen churches participated by preaching about illiteracy and the need for parishioners to get help or to assist.
During the Walk for Literacy, Rosalee Wallace, 68, of Northeast, told Denise Barnes of The Washington Times that she is enrolled in the SEA seniors' computer classes at UDC, which start a second session today.
"I wanted to stay in the learn, learn, learn mode," she said, particularly after her niece bought her a computer that she did not know how to operate.
Alberta Ross, 65, was one of three residents representing NCBA Estates on 14th Street NW. She had "zero knowledge" about computers and wanted to learn because "I needed to know what my grandchildren were doing on the computer," she said.
Anita Wilkins, 31, of Northeast, walked because she wanted to give something back to the program that has helped her. She said she was afraid to talk much 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, which affected her reading. Now she enjoys reading so much, she spends a lot of her spare time browsing the shelves in Sisterspace and Books.
"We need to make adult literacy a priority," said SEA Director K. Brisbane. "The city needs to spend 10 times the $3 million spent last year in local and a federal money."
The SEA office was established with federal Adult Education and Family Literacy Act funds, but the District needs $32 million annually for its literacy services. Only 23 of the 80 adult-literacy programs receive local or federal support. In the 1999-2000 program year, $1.2 million or $371 per adult was spent on literacy services.
Thirty-seven percent of residents read at or below third-grade level.
City residents with low literacy skills are in dire need of resources for literacy programs, especially in light of recent events that have created a huge pool of unemployed, unskilled workers.
Employers report that the biggest barrier to hiring local adults is the lack of language and math skills. Job prospects for adults with low literacy skills are dramatically diminished.
Before learning to read, many illiterate adults were embarrassed about their lack of skills and lived in fear that their deficiencies would be discovered. As they gained knowledge, they gained self-esteem. And their level of literacy made a difference in their level of independence.
Volunteers are equally as important as donations for the 23 programs SEA conducts citywide. Many of the classes are held after traditional school hours, and 80 percent of adult-literacy teachers are volunteers.
SEA programs are offered no cost to those over 16 years of age, 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.
Aid is also critical now because of impending changes in the exam for the General Educational Development (GED) certificates.
The current GED test expires at the end of this year, and anyone who hasn't successfully completed all five sections of the test will lose their scores on the sections they have already completed. They will have to begin again with the new test, which begins Jan. 1. At least 5,000 D.C. residents are in that predicament, Ms. Brisbane said.
For more information on the District's literacy programs, call the SEA office at 202/274-7181.

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