He was a one-time coal miner with three grown children,
but he had never learned to read. Five years ago he walked into the office of
Christian County Public Schools Adult Education Coordinator Beverly Thomson, and
asked her to teach him so he could write checks to pay his bills.
"He's learned that and all kinds of other things,"
But her fondest memory of her long-time student is
the day he announced, "I can read the sign above your door," and pointed
to the words, "Adult Education Center."
"He walked through that door so many times,"
Thomson recalls. "Now it means something different to him."
Thomson and other literacy providers across the state
aim to educate many more like that coal miner, and they've got new backing from
the state government. A statewide push for literacy-initiated by Gov. Paul Patton,
a one-time literacy tutor-has doubled the state money available for adult education
and literacy from $11 million to $23 million. Coupled with the $9 million in federal
funds available for Kentucky literacy programs, the literacy effort has more than
$30 million at its disposal-the most ever.
"There is a lot going on right now," says
Cindy Read, director of the Louisville-based Kentucky Institute for Family Literacy.
"There is a lot of attention focused on reading and, more broadly, literacy."
Patton, who billed himself as the "higher education
governor" during his campaign for election, began his crusade after learning
two startling statistics. First, a 1997 Kentucky Adult Literacy Survey revealed
that 40 percent of the state's working-age population can barely read-that's almost
a million people, or a quarter of the state's residents. Next, a 1999 report by
a Patton-appointed task force found that just 5 percent of those million non-readers
are enrolled in state adult education programs.
Historical statistics about high school drop-out rates
reveal an even broader problem. Twenty-one percent of Kentuckians 25 and older
do not have diplomas, and nearly 5 percent of the state's high school students
dropped out during the 1998-99 school year.
So in addition to the concern that too many people
can't read, the state faced the problem of ensuring there would be enough skilled
workers to fill future jobs and fuel the state's economy.
"We're looking at this not just from the perspective
of improving literacy, but from the perspective of improving the quality of life
for Kentucky," says Cheryl King, who serves the dual roles of commissioner
for adult education and literacy and associate vice president for the Adult Education
and Literacy Council on Postsecondary Education. "Economically, educationally-it's
not one or the other. It's all intertwined."
Patton's answer was this: send more people to college.
In order for Kentuckians to achieve a quality of life comparable to neighboring
states, Patton figured, 240,000 of them would have to enroll in higher-education
programs by 2020. In 1998, Kentucky had 160,000 college students, an 80,000-pupil
Read says there aren't enough youngsters in Kentucky
for the state to reach that higher education goal. So the state-and providers
like Thomson-have turned their efforts toward adults like the coal miner: high
"When you start looking at what it's going to
take to get (to that goal), we've got to go back and reach some of the adults
in the state who didn't complete high school," she says. "To reach college,
they need to do more work."
That work starts in the form of obtaining a high-school
equivalency certificate, known as a GED.
Efforts to bolster college enrollments are aimed at
both children and adults.
The state has offered $2.5 million for a three-phase
campaign that aims, in part, to get people who have taken sections of the five-part
GED test to complete it before the end of the year. That's when the American Council
on Education will change the exam for the first time since 1988-and anyone who
has started on the old test will lose credit for work already completed.
(For more information about the test, GED students
can call 877-740-HELP.)
The second part of the program encourages lifelong
learning, targeting adults with low reading levels between ages 25 and 50. The
third phase of the state campaign will expand a program that encourages middle-school
children to plan for college by enrolling in the basic math, science, and language
courses that they need to qualify.
And each county in the state has become involved in
what is known as family literacy-teaching the undereducated parents of school-aged
children alongside their kids. Just two years ago, only a handful of Kentucky
counties had formal, state-funded family literacy efforts. Today, the governor's
initiative requires all counties to craft plans for adult education that include
family literacy. And a new formula for granting money to literacy programs favors
counties with the most residents who read at the lowest levels.
In Christian County, some parents of pre-school children
ride the bus to school with their kids to attend basic literacy or GED preparation
classes. They spend some time during the day learning about parenting as well,
and work alongside their children and their kids' teachers. One adult student
credits the experience with helping her land a job as assistant manager at a convenience
store, and with convincing her not to cheat on her GED by asking a friend to take
it for her.
"At first I wasn't interested in this class,"
she says. But her teacher "kept telling me to keep on keeping on and not
to give up.... I kept attending class and I started to feel so much better about
myself." Although she hasn't yet earned her GED, she says, "I now know
that I can pass it."
For adults who can't make it to classes, Kentucky Educational
Television offers "GED on TV," designed to help GED candidates study
for the test. KET, the largest public television station in the country, also
runs basic reading programs and a series on workplace skills.
Terry Skinner, Title I coordinator for the Whitley
County School District in Williamsburg, says such programs are a big help to rural
"Transportation is a huge problem" for many
rural people, he says. His program also allows some parents to ride school buses
to their classes.
In Whitley County, the infusion of extra state money
last year meant the school district could afford to keep its literacy offices
open after hours, and Skinner credits that move with adding 100 adult GED students-and
50 extra GED graduates-to its programs. Statewide, county-by-county efforts over
the past year have propelled the state a bit closer to its goal of enrolling 80,000
more college students by 2020.
"Our goal for 2000 was 164,000," says Sue
Hodges Moore, executive vice president of the Council on Postsecondary Education
in Frankfort. "We are 5,500 students ahead of our goal."
Family literacy efforts, says Ginger Wilding, a public
relations specialist with the National Center for Family Literacy in Louisville,
are key to "breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty." That cycle,
she says, is perpetuated by parents who do not read to their children or instill
in them a high regard for education.
The Kentucky Adult Literacy Survey shows that 8 percent
of Kentucky adults admit they never or almost never read to their children. And
King says children whose parents graduated from high school are at least five
times more likely to earn diplomas themselves.
King estimates that a high school diploma earns a worker
an average of $6,000 a year in additional wages-good for both the employee's quality
of life and the state tax coffers.
To get that message to employers, the state is offering
some incentives for workplaces that help their employees further their education.
First, employers can earn tax credits of up to $1,250 for each employee who earns
a GED while on the job; second, workers who obtain their GEDs while working full
time qualify for a $1,000 tuition discount for any college or university in the
In Whitley County, literacy providers hope to win state
approval to take laptop computers into local sewing factories and teach workers
how to use the Internet so they can study for their GEDs through Web-based classes.
"There was a period when Kentucky didn't invest
in literacy," notes Read, who says 100 years ago, 80 percent of the jobs
in the state required physical rather than intellectual labor. "Now only
20 percent can use someone with a low education. Things have changed."
The crown jewel of the governor's initiative, though,
may be his effort to coordinate literacy efforts-both locally and among state
A June 12 literacy summit was the first step in rounding
up all state departments that work with adult education and literacy. Thomson,
who attended, says: "This is the first time in the 15 years I've done adult
education that I've attended a meeting that included the (state) Department of
Education. That was a big step in the right direction."
"It's really drawn the link between adult education
and literacy to postsecondary institutions," agrees King.
She says it's important for agencies that deal with
all levels of education to be involved in the effort to break the intergenerational
cycle of illiteracy.
"We are changing the culture of learning in parents
and families, not just the child and not just the adult," she says. "We're
focusing on the whole, to make lasting change in terms of the value of education."
How Kentucky plans to improve reading abilities
State funding for literacy has doubled to $23
million, with another $9 million available in federal funds
For more information contact the Kentucky Department for Adult Education and Literacy
at (800) 928-7323.
- Gov. Patton held a literacy summit June 12 to coordinate efforts among state
- Funding a three-part plan to (1) encourage adults to take the high school
equivalency GED test by the end of the year, when the old test expires, (2)
teach adult literacy, and (3) encourage middle-school students to take college-prep
- All counties are setting up family literacy programs to teach adults and
parents to read
- Financial incentives have been made available for businesses and employers
to help workers earn GEDs
Pickle in the paper
Beginning this month, 45 newspapers across Kentucky
will run seven weekly installments of the children's story, Luke in a Really
Kentucky authors Marcia Thornton Jones and Debbie
Dadey, authors of the Bailey Kids series of children's books, penned the piece
for the series, written at about a third- to fourth-grade reading level. Lexington
Herald-Leader artist Chris Ware illustrated the stories.
Companion exercises will be distributed to elementary
school teachers, who may use the story as part of their classroom reading lessons.
Parents will be encouraged to read the story as well in their home- delivered
"It's an effort to encourage statewide literacy
as well as reading together," says Kriss Johnson, educational outreach manager
at the Herald-Leader, and co-chair of the Kentucky Network for Newspaper
in Education. "The commitment by so many newspapers is showing us strong
support for encouraging schools and families to read with their children."
The Newspaper in Education project offers discounted
newspaper subscriptions to schools and designs classroom materials to help children
learn how to read the paper.
You can get a list of the newspapers planning to publish
the story by using the Internet to visit our Web site at www.kentuckyliving.com/picklepapers.htm