Adult education word collage
The Blue Diamond Gallery

A woman whom I tutored in reading stunned me years ago when I mentioned the Vietnam War. Even though we both grew up in the 1960s and 70s, she never knew it happened. She didn’t know about World War II or many other events of which most American school children would have a foggy grasp.

This was not because she lacked intelligence, but because the schools she attended in Georgia and our city ignored her learning problems and kept passing her.

Such an experience may strike Street Sense readers as difficult to understand. But it is all too common for volunteers who tutor with adult basic literacy programs in D.C.

But this experience is not the only one that underscores the importance of basic adult literacy programs. Graduation problems at Ballou High School and ongoing problems at the so-called new D.C. Public Schools also ring alarm bells.

The Washington Post reported that Ballou test scores were in the single digits for 2016. “Mired” may be too strong a word, since they improved the next year, but not enough to indicate that most students at Ballou were proficient in either English or math.

So you might say standardized testing showed Ballou students in 2017 improving their performance in English (22 percent meeting or near proficient) and math (10 percent meeting or near proficient) over the previous year (9 percent English and 8 percent math). Nonetheless, either set of statistics is damning.

These statistics demonstrate that the need for adult basic literacy programs will not disappear anytime soon.

But funding for three key adult basic literacy nonprofits—Literacy Volunteers & Advocates, Washington Literacy Center, and Southeast Ministry—is threatened by cuts in Mayor Muriel Bowser’s budget proposal to the Career Innovation Pathways Fund, on which all three programs relied. Instead, the mayor is emphasizing funding for workplace training programs.

The three nonprofits, which constitute the newly formed Alliance for Beginning Adult Learners, are calling on the D.C. City Council to restore a minimum of $500,000 for basic adult-level literacy instruction, and to restore the Career Innovation Pathways Fund, allowing the literacy nonprofits to not only continue serving their learners but to continue improving their educational and support services.

Kenneth Parker, the executive director of Literacy Volunteers & Advocates, stressed the need for adult basic literacy when he testified before the D.C. City Council last month: “Weekly, we receive referrals from … organizations like the D.C. Public Library. Additionally, we have experienced an increase in the number of referrals from family members, friends, and case managers of returning citizens with inadequate resources to serve all those individuals.”

In an interview, Parker noted that his organization received approximately $125,000 yearly from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to serve their learners—80 percent of whom are adults who start out reading at the second-grade level when they enter Literacy Volunteers and Advocates’ program. Without that funding, all three nonprofits will face cuts to needed instruction and services for their learners.

Adult basic literacy is an essential first step to prepare adults who lack the basic skills needed to enter jobs in today’s workplaces. But it is more than that.

Take the woman I tutor. She was fortunate enough to obtain a mailroom job at a federal agency and still holds it over 40 years later. She survived by knowing the names of the individuals and buildings and the room numbers she served.

But her lack of strong literacy skills prevented her from obtaining higher-paying opportunities where she works. Originally, her reason for enrolling at the Washington Literacy Center was to “stop being taken advantage of” when making purchases and filling out forms.

After Washington Literacy Center, she entered the Academy of Hope, to further those skills and obtain a GED or National External Diploma.

Now, with retirement approaching, she holds a license in food preparation and serving. She wants to obtain a certificate in home care for elders. But before the latter occurs, she must obtain her National External Diploma. It took her years just to demonstrate the requisite proficiency in reading and math required to gain entrance into the NED program. But she perseveres in her studies.

Simultaneously, she always emphasized the importance of education to her grandchildren, both of whom are enrolled at one of the city’s more academically demanding charter schools.

That is what makes adult basic literacy so important. It’s about helping people to be better parents, grandparents, consumers, citizens and workers in today’s America. It’s about ensuring people who’ve been shortchanged by life, and often the educational system, receive a needed second chance.

City councilmembers and policymakers at the Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the Workforce Investment Council should not only reinstate the grants to these three adult basic literacy organizations, they should enhance their support and invest in our city’s future.

Stephen Lilienthal volunteers as a tutor with the Academy of Hope and served as a tutor with Literacy Volunteers & Advocates.