Literacy is one of the primary skills needed to graduate high school, earn a college degree or land a decent job, yet, according to Newton County Reads, 90 percent of area employers report they cannot find qualified employees, and 56 percent say it’s due to a lack of basic education.
Surprisingly, almost 20 percent of, or one in five, adults in Georgia have not graduated from high school. Though the number of Georgia adults 18 and older without a high school diploma has dropped — from 1.2 million to 1 million statewide — Piedmont Healthcare in its Community Health Needs Assessment said Newton County has a 49 percent illiteracy rate. Of that, 25 percent could not read above a fourth-grade level.
And, though high school graduation rates in Newton County are slightly higher than the state average, according to Laura Betram, Executive Director of the Newton County Community Partnership (NCCP), each year 250 students drop out.
“When you add those numbers over years, if you lost 250 students a year, you’re adding a lot of people to an unqualified workforce,” she said.
Looking at people who are unable to read, also translates into poverty. Action Ministries, a non-profit organization that has a branch here in Newton County, cites literacy and adult education as a way out of poverty.
“Action Ministries hopes to pilot two initial locations for adult basic education and GED Preparation classes … One potentially during the food pantry hours at Covington First United Methodist Church, Mondays and Wednesdays from 2 to 4 p.m., and a second location in downtown Porterdale,” said Action Ministries Area Coordinator Tamara Richardson.
“Both locations lend themselves to clients who may need to walk from neighborhoods close by.
“We are in the process of accepting used or refabricated laptop computers for our clients’ use.”
Action Ministries, Georgia Piedmont Technical College, NCCP and the Covington Parents are children’s first teacher, Betram said. Among the things parents can teach their children is an appreciation for education and literacy. That means reading is one of the skills parents need if they want their children to do well in school and have the opportunities to succeed, according to Betram.
Shamica Redding, Deputy Director of the Housing Authority of the City of Covington, said they are providing the classroom for adult literacy classes, located adjacent to the 180 public housing apartments off Alcovy Road.
“We wanted in [to] this partnership,” Redding said. “We have the space and we also have a community that can help utilize the space. We wanted to create a place where people can come in and make it easy for them to read to their kids.
“The problem starts to cycle,” she said. “If I don’t read, it means I won’t read to my children, which means they will be behind when they start schools, which means there’s a great chance of them not completing their basic education.”
“When parents learn to read to their children, their interest in furthering their own education [develops],” Betram said. “They see the words they struggle with and they want to expand that.”
Reading affects the community
Redding said the programs are designed to help people understand why it’s important to read to their children. “If you have people in your community who aren’t fully literate, it affects the whole community. Worker bees need to know how to read; to facilitate that you have to make sure they have the tools they need. As literacy increases, we can attack more industry and jobs.”
Like Action Ministries, the Housing Authority’s mission is to help people get out of poverty. It provides one of the cornerstones people need, Redding said. “We’re proving one of the major things [to help people out of poverty], but we also want to be a catalyst or pathway towards other things people need to come out of poverty.”
One of those tools is to help people understand how to communicate with those living in the middle class, what Redding refers to as “middle-class language. Part of that is being able to do well in school and being in a culture where that’s important.”
Dr. Jackie Echols, Dean of Georgia Piedmont Technical College’s (GPTC) Adult Education program said students who come to adult education say they disconnected from high school for various reasons.
“A lot of them don’t go regularly enough and get behind with the houses they need to graduate,” Echols said. “The whole notion of repeating a grade is something they can’t handle. They drop out. They get in trouble or get sent to an alternative school, which usually doesn’t work very well … there’s an array of reasons why the public school doesn’t work for them.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a person with less than a high school diploma earns about $500 a week; 8 percent are unemployed. Someone with a high school diploma, on average, makes $678 a week, with a 5.4 percent unemployment rate. For those with a bachelor’s degree, income increases to $1,137 and unemployment numbers drop to 2.8 percent.
“Our focus is to improve literacy [so people can] get the GED and preparing people for the work force,” Echols said.
Federal legislation, the Work Force Innovation Opportunity Act, signed by President Barack Obama on July 22, 2014, provides a long-term effort for American job growth.
“It’s all about work force improvement,” Echols said. “So that’s been our focus. Prior to that, our focus was helping folks achieve the GED. Now, our focus is that new piece of legislation – not only getting the GED but preparing them to get a job.”
According to Echols, 75 percent of the adults who are assessed for the college’s GED program read between a second and seventh-grade level.
“That’s where the majority of them are,” she said. “They need to read at a ninth grade level to have a reasonable chance of passing the GED.”
Redding and Echols both said the GED test has become harder. While the college offers adult education classrooms, the one-on-one tutoring helps prepare illiterate students for the classes and can reduce the time it takes to earn a GED.
“Action Ministries and Newton County Community Partnership provides tutoring service,” Echols said. “Folks need additional help. The more help you get, the faster you get to your goal. Their volunteers help individuals make progress. When they come to us, it doesn’t take them so long. … To get from grade three to grade nine takes time and effort.
Echols said GPTC’s adult education programs served 4,000 people in 2015. “We don’t have the resource to deal with that big a group – if we had all of those folks show up, we wouldn’t have enough teachers in our classrooms to serve them.”
That’s why the college reaches out to community-based organizations, she said. “The partnership can decrease the time [a student needs to be in school] to get the skills they need,” she said.
“GPTC has been working with or partnering with the NCCP and Action Ministries for a couple of years. Those community-based organizations really work hard to spread literacy awareness across Newton County, and they also are very active in providing volunteers to come into their organization and help individuals who want to improve literacy skills.”
The importance of words
A 2003 study University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley assessed ways daily exchanges between a parent and child shape language and vocabulary development. Called the “word gap,” research has shown that by kindergarten, there is a 50 million word gap between a child from a low-income household and one from a professional or working class family.
“No child is poor,” Betram said. “They live in families that are poor. Of the children who live in low-income families, only 59 percent go to Pre-K programs.”
Betram said by third grade, a child who can’t read on grade level will struggle to advance in school.
“Children need a single, volunteer, caring adult who cares,” Betram said. “This is where volunteers can be really helpful. Volunteers can learn the research methods for modeling teaching behaviors for children. [It] dramatically increases bonding, nurturing, and increases safety and health in the family, and reduces trauma.
Recently, the Newton County Public Health Department and Newton County Library System launched an initiative called “Talk with Me Baby” in Newton County. The program was created to bridge the 30 million word gap by training nurses to educate and coach expectant and new parents about why and how to talk with babies. [See Initiative asks parents to ‘Talk with Me Baby’” at http://www.covnews.com/section/1/article/201947/.
“It’s not that people on the lower end of the income scale don’t want [success] for their children,” Redding said.
Betram echoed that statement.
“I have to do focus groups with low-income groups around the state,” she said. “In every one of the focus groups at least once a person says they want better for their child then they have themselves, and that’s echoed by others. What we need to do is model the right behaviors and connect them with resources.”
Echols said she appreciated NCCP’s commitment to improving literacy in Newton County. “[Betram] has a substantial group of volunteers that are dedicated to improving literacy in Newton County – that’s a good thing, given the need that’s out there.”
The adult literacy program needs tutors who specialize in different subjects as well as volunteers who are interested in helping tutor at GPTC during the day. To volunteer or to learn about the literacy partnership, contact Bertram at firstname.lastname@example.org or 770-786-0807.