PD Editorial: A gift that can never come too late: literacy
By The editorial board | Sep 6, 2016

Each fall, some adult Americans wish they could go back and take part in the annual tradition that many students dread — the first day of school. Unfortunately, they lack the opportunity and the basic skills needed to perform in school, as well as in the workplace. They lack the ability to read.

According to research by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 32 million adults in the nation — 14 percent of the population — are unable to read at a basic level. Roughly 21 percent of adults read at below a fifth-grade level.

And with the sharp decline in adult education programs in recent years, fewer of them have access to programs to help them improve their skills, leaving them either unemployed or stuck in low-end jobs.

But one local program is making a difference. The Literacyworks Center, which opened on the Petaluma campus of Santa Rosa Junior College in early 2015, is helping adults develop reading skills while easing them back into the education system. And it’s working.

Last year, 96 adults completed the program, and a capacity of 84 are enrolled this fall. A waiting list has formed, but the odds of finding a spot are not great. While roughly 60 percent of similar students enrolled in community colleges get frustrated and drop out, Literacyworks had less than 10 percent drop out of its program last year. One was because the individual was hired for a job.

According to Paul Heavenridge, executive director of Literacyworks, students for the program are referred from one of the nonprofit’s many partner agencies, including Santa Rosa Junior College, College of Marin, literacy programs in the the Sonoma and Marin County library systems, the Graton Rancheria and the Redwood Credit Union. The students need to be motivated, enrolled concurrently in the SRJC and maintain a C average. Preference is given to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds as well as students who are over the age of 30 and have children.

During a recent visit with The Press Democrat Editorial Board, former Rep. Lynn Woolsey, who represented the North Coast in Congress for 21 years, said that she often heard local companies lament that they can’t find entry-level workers with basic skills. Literacyworks, which she supports as an honorary board member along with Sebastopol-based actor Peter Coyote, is helping to address that program, she said.

“It’s a workforce issue,” she said. “It’s also our future.”

It’s a problem that often gets passed down from generation to generation, she said. When adults can’t read, they aren’t able to read to their children or help them with their homework. Studies show that students who are not proficient readers by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of school. Some may end up in the criminal justice system. Nearly 70 percent of prison inmates in America cannot read above a fourth-grade level.

“This is really a family literacy program,” said Woolsey.

It’s also a community gift, one that deserves support and duplication as a model for success.