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Breaking the Literacy Barrier

by Carl Hoffman

Catherine Brady was 14 when she dropped out of eighth grade. Michelle Scott dropped out at 15, after completing seventh grade. Rosemary Nipper skipped seventh grade altogether, completed eighth and ninth grade, and then left midway through her sophomore year of high school. Shonda Hunt almost made it through high school, dropping out at 17, one year short of graduation.

Most of these women live in Catoosa County, Georgia, where the dropout rate for adults over the age of 25 is 36.2 percent, and 14 percent of those adults dropped out before completing the ninth grade. It's easy enough to look at those numbers and see nothing but the proverbial half-empty glass. But statistics tell only part of the story. On an early fall morning, the four women are bent over desks at the Shirley Smith Learning Center in Ringgold, Georgia, solving algebra problems and puzzling out test questions in preparation for the General Educational Development exam.

And they're not alone. From January through November 2000, 340 men and women came through the doors of the center seeking to jump-start their lives by earning general equivalency diplomas (GEDs). As Michelle Scott puts it, "I want to make up for the mistakes I made when I was young."

"My goal is to take away every barrier" to a diploma, says Shirley Smith, the center's director. Can't afford class fees? There aren't any. Can't afford the $45 GED test fee? Twice a year, the center offers free tests. Need child care? The center offers it for free. Need a flexible schedule? The center is open from 8:30 A.M. to 9:00 P.M., Monday through Thursday. Find it hard to get away from your job? The center offers workplace GED programs. And Smith hopes to acquire a bus to shuttle those who don't have their own transportation to the center.

The center operates out of a sparkling, five-classroom building outfitted with new computers (both for the students and for children in the center's day care), software, printers, and scanners, as well as Internet access. Completed in January 2000, the building was funded by the community and equipped through an Appalachian Regional Commission grant. Besides GED classes, the center offers courses in English, math, basic reading, and parenting, and provides instruction in using computers and the World Wide Web. These classes are all free and open to anyone. In addition, Northwestern Technical College offers a growing range of degree and nondegree classes at the center, in subjects from psychology to English to early childhood development.

Citizens for Literacy

The center is run by Catoosa Citizens for Literacy (CCL), which was created by the Catoosa County Chamber of Commerce in 1993 and is now a participant in Georgia's Certified Literate Community Program. Why did a chamber of commerce start a literacy program? "It's really very simple," says Karon Manley, chair of the chamber's literacy committee and interim president. "Our literacy rate isn't very high, and our businesses all feel that a GED program can improve our workforce."

For seven years the program operated on a tiny budget out of a room donated by the local school system. In that one room, some 2,500 adults attended literacy programs, and 522 earned GEDs. Enrollment increased by 10 percent every year. But when the high school ran out of space and needed its room back, Shirley Smith saw an opportunity. "If we were doing so much out of one room with no money," she says, "I kept thinking what we could do if we had money and space."

The chamber formed a task force, surveyed its members, and decided there was both a need and a willingness in the community to build something bigger. "We feel that a lot of the root problem of drugs, crime, and spousal abuse is illiteracy," says Richard Arp, vice president of marketing at Northwest Georgia Bank, which has been a longtime supporter of CCL. "We feel that when we support literacy, we come to grips with other community problems."

Smith approached the county with an offer: If it would donate land for a new learning center, CCL would raise the money to build it, and then donate it back to the county. Within a year, Smith had raised the money—from the county, from local businesses, and from individuals.

The local telephone company donated money, free telephone lines, and Internet access, and promises of annual support. "We want to help better educate our community as a whole," says Faye Wells, Ringgold Telephone Company's director of governmental and public affairs. "Literacy helps everyone."

"The kinds of businesses we'd like to see want higher literacy rates in the county," says Arp. And, he says, while there's been a dramatic improvement in the county's schools recently, "without those kinds of high-tech, high-wage jobs, our kids don't stay here."

That combination of local government and community business support caught the attention of Georgia Governor Roy Barnes. "I applaud Shirley Smith and the Catoosa Citizens for Literacy," Barnes says, "for their willingness to combine the efforts of the public and private sectors to improve the educational opportunities in Catoosa County."

Almost a year after its opening, the center is a bustling place—"a happy building," in the words of Smith. In a computer class, eight students are learning to surf the Web with the help of a volunteer instructor. "I love it," says student Sylvia Riddle. Although she can't afford a computer of her own, she's learned how to set up a Web-based email address that she accesses at the public library and uses to communicate with her out-of-state daughter. DeAnne Huskey operates an antiques store that, she says, "is a bit off the beaten track. But I've just bought a computer, and I'm hoping to get on eBay and expand the business."

The men and women in the computer class are becoming computer-literate, and, in Huskey's case, maybe even laying the groundwork for growing a business. But the students in the GED classroom are literally changing their lives as they study one-on-one, at their own pace, for their high school diplomas.

Working Toward a Better Future

Catherine Brady had dropped out of the eighth grade to get married. She raised five children, all of whom graduated from high school and two of whom finished college, and then she helped raise her grandchildren and care for a disabled husband. Finally, she says, "I thought I'd get my GED for me." She already has a job—with health insurance—lined up, provided she gets her diploma. "I'm going to take the test," she says. "I want that job and that insurance."

A car crash when she was nine left Rosemary Nipper with permanent physical disabilities. Now she's a single mother with a ninth-grade education. "It's hard enough to get a job with no high school diploma, but when you're disabled [too], it's right near impossible," she says. "But I'm capable of holding a job, and I would love to go to work. I'm here to offer my kids a better future."

Michelle Scott came to the learning center the day her youngest child started kindergarten. "I want to get my emergency medical technician license, and for that I need a high school diploma. And I want my nine-year-old daughter to respect me. I don't want to have to tell her that I can't help her in school; I want to be there for her. The center is perfect for me."

It's the free child care the center offers that allows Shonda Hunt to pursue a GED. "I'd thought about it for years," says the 28-year-old mother of three, who works about 35 hours a week at a local discount store on the night shift, "but I never had the time, and the cost of child care is outrageous. When I realized the center was free, with free child care, it was like, well, there's nothing stopping me now. I want to educate myself. I don't want my kids to drop out and say, 'Well, you never got your diploma.' This way I can show them how important it is."

"Our dream," says Smith, eyeing a young woman with a baby on her hip strolling into the center, "is for a young mother or father to be able to walk in here, get child care while they get their GED, take some computer classes, enroll in Northwestern, and eventually walk out of here with a degree and a good job. We want to stop that vicious cycle of poverty."

Carl Hoffman is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.