Link to ARC home page.

Reading for Life

by Fred D. Baldwin

Back in the spring of 1997, Renee Oxley, who lives in Barrow County, Georgia, spoke at her class graduation exercises to an auditorium nearly filled with graduates, families, and guests. Her main theme was that it's never too late to learn.

She'd won the right to say that. Almost 30 years after she dropped out of high school, she earned a general equivalency diploma (GED) with the help of the Barrow County Adult Learning Center in Winder (rhymes with "finder"). She has six adult children and 16 grandchildren, and today she's taking nursing courses at nearby Athens Area Technical Institute, where she's a member of Phi Theta Kappa, an academic honor society.

That same year, Jeanette Lee, also from Barrow County and once a high school dropout, also spoke at her GED graduation ceremony. Her four children (ages 5 to 13) watched her on television. Her GED won her a promotion from school custodial staff to head custodian at a new school, but that wasn't her goal when she started attending classes at the center during her lunch hours.

"I just wanted my children to know the importance of it," she says. "I think it may inspire them to keep going on to school if they know that their mother graduated."

During the past year, the Barrow County Adult Learning Center has helped nearly 100 students pass the GED exam—a substantial number in a rural county whose most recent high school graduating class numbered about 270. Most of the GED recipients had dropped out of school within the past few years, but many (like Oxley and Lee) are older. Most grew up nearby, but a few come from places like Bosnia, Mexico, and Cambodia.

The formal cap-and-gown graduation ceremonies are one way that Barrow County, which is one of Appalachia's fastest-changing areas, demonstrates its community-wide commitment to improving adult literacy. It's not the only way. The learning center also provides classes for many adults who have no plans to take GED exams but who know they need help with reading or math. It participates in a program for juveniles at risk of dropping out of school and is part of a project to package brochures for elementary school children to take home to parents. It has an active English-as-a-second-language (ESL) program, a basic computer program, and plans to create an adult library in every Barrow County elementary school.

"We've never done the same thing year-to-year," says Lisa Maloof, executive director of the Barrow County center. "We've added something new every year."

Meeting Two Challenges

That flexibility is needed because, where adult literacy is concerned, Barrow County is dealing with two challenges simultaneously. The first, familiar to many Appalachian communities, is the necessity of making up for the frequent undervaluation of education for many decades. The second, more acute in Barrow County than in most of Appalachia, is the necessity of adapting to rapid economic and demographic changes that stress local institutions.

Local leaders explain that the economy of Barrow County was once based on agriculture, and then on textile mills. Neither old-style farm work nor unskilled jobs in the "sewing factories" required much by way of formal education. A decade or so ago, however, the textile mills moved overseas, leaving a lot of poorly educated people behind. Data from a study done by the University of Georgia for the Barrow County School District indicated that in 1990, 41 percent of Barrow County's adult population aged 25 and older lacked a high school education or the equivalent.

"We had been a textile town totally—the overalls capital of the world," says Beth Caldwell, now a county commissioner and a former president of the Winder Woman's Club, the organization that took the first steps to get a literacy program started. "The people who worked in those plants weren't going to have jobs."

The Barrow County effort was promptly reinforced by a state-wide initiative, the Certified Literate Community Program (CLCP), launched in 1989 by the Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education's Office of Adult Literacy. According to that agency, 39 Georgia communities are currently CLCP participants. More than 480,000 adult Georgians have been served in literacy classes during the past five years, and statewide enrollment in 1997 (the last year for which complete totals are available) was almost 112,000.

To be designated a "Certified Literate Community," a community's efforts must lead to certain levels of literacy gains for a target number of adults. The target number is half or more of all county residents aged 16 and older whom the 1990 Census showed as lacking a high school education or its equivalent (and who were not enrolled in high school). That number for Barrow County in 1990 was nearly 9,000, making the official target nearly 4,500 people.

For Barrow County leaders, meeting a numerical goal based on 1990 numbers is less important than getting ready for the decades ahead. The Winder-Barrow Certified Literate Community Coalition is one of a very few CLCP participants in Georgia with a full-time executive director (Maloof), and the only one where the director's salary and program overhead are covered by the county school district, meaning that adult literacy and general education are approached as elements of a single strategy.

"It's hard to teach children that education is important if the parents are not educated," Maloof says. "We've heard from parents, when parents return to school, how proud their children are that their parents are back in school, and they talk about sitting around the kitchen table at night doing homework together."

"We saw a lot of youngsters from homes without education," agrees Dan Cromer, former superintendent of schools. He notes that the Barrow County school system is stressed by the pace of growth. Student enrollments began creeping up in the 1980s, initially at a manageable rate of 2 percent per year. The most recent annual increase was 7 percent. This rate, if it persists, would double total enrollments within a decade; in fact, it may not merely persist but continue to accelerate.

Other area institutions make major contributions. Gwinnett Technical Institute, in Lawrenceville (Gwinnett County), provides the center's instructional staff. The City of Winder provides space at bargain-basement rates and has committed better facilities in another building when renovations are completed. Many contributions come from local employers. For example, First Impressions, a small Winder printing firm owned by Mike and Sandra Mingus that also provides computer training, recently decided to become the center's partner. The firm will donate classes in computer applications for up to six students one Saturday a month.

Community Support

Students who pass their GED exams may receive scholarships (usually worth about $150) to help defray the costs of books and fees at area technical schools or colleges. Donors have included the Winder Woman's Club, the Brotherhood (an organization of African-American men), Kiwanis, and the Winder Rotary Club. For six years now, a December dinner-dance (known locally as the "Literacy Ball") has been a major fund-raiser; in 1997 it netted almost $12,000 after expenses. Other events (a book sale, a golf tournament) brought in about $3,500 more in 1998.

"This program has tremendous support," says Tina Coria, director of intergovernmental relations and ARC alternate for Georgia Governor Zell Miller. "The local school system and the local government are committed to improving adult literacy. The staff is able to maintain excellent rapport with area businesses, community groups, youth-related agencies, and local service agencies. The level of participation reflects the hard work of the staff and the value of the program."

Barrow County continues to change. An increasing number of Barrow County residents are foreign-born. Those populations are still small, but they are growing fast. The growth is a mixed blessing for Barrow County. It creates jobs, but most of these jobs require at least a high-school-equivalent education. The Barrow County literacy program must provide opportunities both for the people for whom it was originally designed (long-term residents hit hard by plant closings) and for newer residents whose literacy needs are urgent and, if unmet, will create new problems.

Grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission (which has funded a number of similar literacy programs in Georgia) have supported the purchase of computer equipment and software and expansion of the ESL program. A few foreign-born students, well-educated in their countries of origin, simply need instruction in English; many, however, never learned to read in their native language. The ESL program serves both kinds of students—79 of them during the past year.

Listening to Barrow County leaders like Caldwell and Cromer describe their efforts recalls the Red Queen's remark in Alice in Wonderland that sometimes you have to run as fast as you can just to stay where you are. They're working to meet the needs of both new residents from a score of different countries, and people like Judy Bentley, who grew up in the Barrow County area. Bentley worked much of her life in the sewing factories there, but never learned to read in her native language, either. Now, at age 52, she says the adult literacy classes she faithfully attends changed her life.

"When I first started coming," she says, "I couldn't read a bit. When I went and bought groceries, if it didn't have a picture on it, I didn't bother with it. Now I don't have to wonder what's in the can."

Bentley isn't working toward a GED, but she ticks off a long list of benefits her new abilities have brought her: she can read her own mail, she has fewer worries about getting lost because she can read street signs, and she has more confidence in making change in stores.

More typical is Sheila Shelton, who left school at age 16 to marry. Now in her mid 30s, she has three children of her own, ages 6 through 12. She says that she failed GED exams several times and was ready to give up until her instructor at the center pointed out that her scores had improved each time she'd taken the tests. She recently passed.

"He wouldn't let me give up, no matter what," Shelton says. "He was like, 'You can't give up. You worked too hard for it.' "

That's a succinct summary of the Barrow County adult literacy philosophy. So far not quite 450 adults have earned GEDs with help from the Barrow County program; many others have met the state's criteria for tested improvements in literacy levels. Billie Izard, executive director of the Georgia Office of Adult Literacy's CLCP, has nothing but praise for the local program's accomplishments.

"They really pull it all together," says Izard. "I think that their board has seen all the resources within the community, and they have made use of them: the local government, the Chamber of Commerce, the businesses, the board of education. Everyone wants to be a part of it and makes a contribution."

Fred D. Baldwin is a freelance writer based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.