TODAY, THE DAILY JOURNAL CONTINUES its year-long “State of Our Schools” series with this month's focus on literacy. The fifth and final installment of a five-day look at the state of literacy education in Mississippi looks at adults who never attained a high level of literacy and are taking advantage of programs that will help them catch up. Next month’s installment of “The State of our Schools” will examine teacher preparation, quality and efforts to make the profession more attractive to top students.
Click here to view the entire series
School wasn’t Milton Wardlow’s highest priority when he was a kid. His family raised hogs and cows, and he was expected to do his part around the farm.
“I didn’t go to school that much,” the 62-year-old Tupelo resident said. “I had to take care of my family. I was the oldest.”
Wardlow made a life for himself without an education. He got married and raised two children. Though he wasn’t able to help with their homework, he encouraged them along the way.
“I told them to keep learning,” he said. “When they graduated high school, I was proud. I wished it was me, but it wasn’t.”
According to an estimate by the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, Wardlow is one of the 16 percent of Mississippi adults who lack the ability to read newspaper stories, brochures or textbooks. Most adults take those basic literacy skills for granted, but not Wardlow.
“It’s been hard,” he said. “I had to have people to help me.”
The common path to adult literacy travels from kindergarten to 12th grade, but that doesn’t always work.
“Everybody has a different story. You can’t really say it’s one thing,” said Georgia Shocklee, adult basic education and GED instructor at Itawamba Community College’s Belden Center. “These are people who slipped through the cracks of public school.”
Reasons include untreated learning disorders, such as dyslexia or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some students experience severe test anxiety, which turns a fundamental part of school life into torture.
“They’re often fairly sharp,” Shocklee said. “When they come to (ABE) classes, they move up pretty quickly to the higher levels.”
As with Wardlow, the lack of parental support can be a powerful barrier to education. As the saying goes, parents are their child’s first educators, but not every parent is equipped or willing to perform that role.
“If you have parents who are not educated, who don’t stress it at home, that goes to the children,” Shocklee said. “It’s not encouraged.”
Thea Williams-Black, coordinator of master of literacy programs at the University of Mississippi, said an ideal world would include training for parents in how to steer their children toward learning at an early age.
“If parents aren’t reading newspapers or books or the Bible to their children, they will come to school with a lower vocabulary than other students,” Williams-Black said. “They need to learn how to interact with their children at home. Simply driving a car and saying, ‘That’s a McDonald’s sign. That’s a stop sign,’ is literacy.”
Teachers also need training in how to spot kids who need extra help. Williams-Black said sometimes quiet children have been left to fend for themselves, as teachers focus on squeaky wheels.
“The testing we have now is designed to catch those children,” she said, adding that some school districts employ literacy coaches to work with kids who need extra help. “The goal is to catch them before they fall too far behind.”
Lecreesha Saxton, 22, of Tupelo, said she had a different sort of teacher problem. It came down to a personality conflict.
“I stayed in trouble with one teacher in high school,” Saxon said. “She didn’t really like me. She pushed me, so I decided I was going to quit.”
Guntown resident Austin Braddock, 19, isn’t exactly sure where school went wrong for him.
“I was just bored,” he said. “I just wanted to do something else.”
When the traditional route is no longer an option, some barriers remain.
“The big issue you find with adult literacy is embarrassment,” Williams-Black said. “They don’t want anyone to know they can’t read.”
Saxton knew how to read, but didn’t have a diploma. For her, finishing her education at ICC’s Belden Center was a dollars-and-cents decision after she learned that her job prospects weren’t nearly as bright as she wanted them to be.
“I’m going for my GED,” she said. “It’s something I’m doing on my own.”
That “something else” that Braddock said he wanted to do instead of going to school led to burglary charges. He’s taking ABE classes at Belden Center as part of his sentence, but he said he sees the value in education now that he’s seen more of his options.
“I am trying to better my future,” he said. “I want to go to college, but if I get my GED, I’ll be satisfied because then I can get a good job.”
Another barrier to adult education has recently lifted for a specific group of people. Hispanic immigrants started signing up for ABE classes last year after President Obama signed an executive order to prevent illegal immigrants from being deported if they came to the U.S. before age 16 and are no older than 30. In order to qualify, they have to have a high school diploma or a GED, or serve in the U.S. military.
“Several have enrolled,” Shocklee said. “I enjoy them. There is a definite work ethic with that group.”
Adult literacy classes start where the students are. Some walk in below kindergarten level, and others just have some catching up to do to get back on the traditional path that will take them on to college.
Of course, not everyone will earn a GED or go onto higher education, but there’s still something to be won by adult students, said Deanna Duckworth, who teaches ABE classes at Belden Center.
“Any education is going to help them have a better quality of life and let them be able to do more than they can now,” Duckworth said. “That’s what a lot of it is about.”
At 62, Wardlow isn’t thinking about getting a good job or going to college; he’s thinking about himself.
“I’m trying to get me an education” he said. “That’s what I need.”
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