- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2005

The mastery of words, of their written and oral usage, is a life-altering accomplishment.

“An investment in literacy is an investment in the quality of life for all of our communities,” said C. Vanessa Spinner, acting director of the State Education Agency (SEA) at the University of the District of Columbia.

However, in the District, more than 130,000 adults have not mastered the fundamentals of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Sparked by programs that support their education, adult learners such as Stanley Bell of Northeast have seen their lives improve through SEA services.

Mr. Bell, 56, was forced to quit his job in construction after suffering a stroke. He got his General Equivalency Diploma in 2003 at Notre Dame Adult Education Center and continued his education with computer courses. Mr. Bell, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, has participated in the annual SEA Claude Brown Writers and Readers Series and is depicted in the adult learners’ mural at the Carlos Rosario International Center.

“Learning how to read has completely changed my life and opened up a whole new world of learning,” Mr. Bell said yesterday.

In literature promoting tomorrow’s SEA fundraiser, he says, “I am more confident in my conversations, and it has given me a chance to venture into new areas in my life.”

The fifth annual 3K Walk for Literacy, sponsored by SEA and the Booker T. Washington Public Charter School, starts at 8:30 a.m. at TechWorld Plaza at Eighth and K streets NW.

“Due to the tremendous efforts of our public and private partners, this year, we have doubled the number of adults receiving literacy services. We can keep this momentum going if we are able to increase the number of walkers,” Ms. Skinner said.

In 2004, she reports that more than 5,000 adult learners were involved in literacy programs, and many have continued their education motivated by the opportunity to expand their life options.

The Walk for Literacy will raise funds for more than 30 District adult- and family-education centers like the one at Notre Dame and Covenant House in Northwest.

Ms. Skinner estimates that the District requires $32 million annually to provide literacy services to those without adequate skills. But local and federal funding allocated for adult education services support less than 10 percent of those needs.

Nearly 40 million Americans are illiterate. According to the most recent literacy statistics, the District ranks among the lowest in the nation for adult literacy. Nearly 37 percent of adults age 16 and older do not have a high school diploma and have language and math skills below elementary level.

“Going back to school brought my reading level up 100 percent,” Mr. Bell said. He used to have trouble reading documents and filling out job applications.

This year, SEA is stressing the importance of the link from literacy to employment. When one person earns a GED, the lot of an entire family inevitably improves.

“This is a problem that can and must be eradicated in the District in order for our residents to pursue and maintain jobs that pay livable wages, and lead healthy and productive lives,” wrote Gregg Irish, director of the Department of Employment Services, which partners with SEA on some job-training projects.

Employers often state that the biggest barrier to hiring local adults is the lack of language and math skills.

“A city’s work force lacking basic skills is not good for business because it results in high staff turnover, poor productivity and low morale,” said Margaret Sullivan of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

She added that the chamber encourages employers to participate in workplace education programs for their employees. But employers are struggling to upgrade the skills of many of their current workers because they lack basic skills.

Mr. Bell, who is working part time in a downtown janitorial service, said getting his GED “opened up a whole new world of learning.” He eventually tutored other students and went on to earn a certification in computer programs.

More importantly, Mr. Bell said he no longer feels “blindsided about stepping forward.” He used to “keep everything hidden and shy away” from people and activities, but “once I learned to read, I do things more openly.”

Mr. Bell said his main reason for participating in the Walk for Literacy tomorrow is “so I can encourage other people to come out of their circle of fear.”

All of the proceeds from the literacy walk go directly to programs that support adult learners. Registration is $25 for adults, $10 for students and seniors.

To register, call 866/832-2289 or log on to www.dcadultliteracy.org. On-site registration is available starting at 7:30 a.m.

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