D.C. literacy rates low, but combated by programs

More than one of every three D.C. residents is functionally illiterate, according to a report released last month by the University of the District of Columbia.

The study, which was conducted by UDC’s State Education Agency for Adult Education and Family Literacy, analyzes data from a national literacy survey in 1992 and the 2000 Census. The agency is tasked with managing D.C.’s citywide literacy initiative, which receives funds from the city government. The report pinpoints specific areas of the District that had severe literacy problems.

Wards 5, 7 and 8 had the highest functional illiteracy rates, which stand at approximately 50 percent. The national average for functional illiteracy is 25 percent. GW is in Ward 2.

Functional illiteracy is defined as having “below basic” literary skills, which means the person “can perform no more than the most simple and concrete literacy skills,” according to the report. Examples of simple literacy skill are finding an intersection on a map, completing a job application, or reading bus schedules.

Stacey Downey, the agency’s Literary Resource Center director, said only 8 percent of illiterate residents actually receive the proper education.

“The report … was meant to be a provocative call to action for the District of Columbia to take a more comprehensive look at adult and family literacy,” Downey said. “We have to provoke public discussion in order to get something done about this problem.”

Downey added that the social stigmas surrounding illiteracy and the daily responsibilities of adulthood prevent a lot of people from seeking education. The literacy programs, she said, are also under-funded.

“(T)he lack of availability of many of these programs definitely contributes to the problem,” she said.

Since the data was originally released in 1992, Downey said her agency has recruited and trained 20 new literacy coaches and instituted programs for building learning capacity.

The agency is currently exploring programs to lower D.C.’s illiteracy rate. Methods include gaining D.C. business sponsors and greater city funding, as well as an initiative to link adult education more closely with workforce development, according to the report.

Along with a policy to help adults in the District become literate, Downey said there should be programs that recognize and correct a child’s reading problems at an early age to prevent adult illiteracy.

“We’re focusing a lot on family literacy. Research shows that families that learn together, learn more,” Downey said. “Also, for many illiterate parents, protecting their children from the hardships that they have endured as a result of illiteracy provides great motivation to foster education within the home.”

Downey said community support is needed to solve the problem.

“We’re hoping that the city government and the residents of Washington, D.C. will make a long-term, generational commitment to ameliorating illiteracy. The problem has been ignored for too long,” she said.

Sophomore Jen Galvin, a teacher for JumpStart, said one’s class and home life could have a negative impact on a child’s literacy skills, and limit resources for development. JumpStart is a program devoted to tutoring under-educated children to catch them up with students their age.

“Children from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds show severely decreased vocabulary, word recognition and other reading skills as compared to their socio-economically advantaged counterparts,” Galvin said. “Furthermore, once these kids fall behind, there’s no real safety net in the D.C. public school system to bring them up to speed.”

He added that those that are behind have been behind since kindergarten, and their gap in education often continues to grow.

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