For years Gracie Cunningham felt her limited reading skills were holding her back from job opportunities.
She cleaned office buildings while raising her children and helping to raise her grand- sons. But
when she lost her job,and her un- employment benefits ran out she decided it was time to reach for
her goal of literacy.
“Something inside of me said, ‘you can do better.’ It was in my heart to do it. The man upstairs said to me, ‘go on and go back to school, you can do it,’” Cunningham said. “No one is ever too old to go back to school.”
This month the D.C. City Council showed its support for adult education when it approved a $1 million increase in funding for adult literacy programs in the FY14 Budget Support Act bill. The council had to decide where to spend the city’s $50 million surplus. In all, $4.3 million dollars was allocated for adult and family education programs that offer post-secondary education and workforce readiness.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education predicts the money will assist over 3,400 adult learners, like Cunningham, to improve their reading, math, and computer skills, earn a GED or get career training.
These days, Cunningham, 58, attends adult basic literacy education classes at Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, a non- profit organization dedicated to addressing problems of illiteracy. In two locations in
the District, LVA offers classes, one-on-one tutoring and a summer book club. It assists adults with phonics, life-skills reading, math, computer skills and more. There is a fine art to teaching adults how to read, said LVA’s executive director Rita Daniels.
“The first rule in adult education is adults learn best in topics they want to know or need to
know,” Daniels noted. The lesson offered “must meet their im- mediate needs or it’s not going to
Daniels is passionate about helping adults gain confidence through literacy. Her own
grandmother never learned to read or write during her lifetime.
“I can’t imagine what she went through not ever writing her name, not ever being able to read her
Bible,” she said. “That bothers me to this day.”
While the average learner at LVA is 45 years old, students range in age from old- er teenagers to people in their 80s. The organization does not like to describe reading abilities by grade level, but says most students are at a sixth grade reading level or below when they begin.
“There is definitely an array of abilities in the classes,” said Koya M. Bakare, the volunteer coordinator. “When you measure by grade level it is not all-en- compassing. Someone who maybe at a fourth-grade reading level may also be at a higher level in math.”
Nationally, about 15 percent of adults lack basic literacy skills. It can be difficult for them to fill out a job application, maintain a bank account or help their children with school work. Locally, about 85,000 District residents, nearly 20 percent of the population, struggle with reading, according to the National
Center for Education Statistics.
The increase in city funding will go a long way for organizations like LVA. The weekly summer book club will have up to 50 participants when it begins July 16. When regular classes begin again in Sep- tember, LVA expects to serve more than 200 learners in the adult basic literacy education classes and one-on-one tutoring sessions.
Cunningham said she has made significant progress in her reading and math skills since beginning
the adult educa- tion classes and working with a tutor. She started in 2011, and comes to the center daily. The staff praised her as a highly- motivated learner. She reads constantly, participates in peer teaching and regularly does homework. Her confidence builds with each small milestone in her journey to a lifelong objective.
“My goal is to get my GED. I will continue with these classes as long as it takes to reach that goal,” Cunningham said. “And when I move up that ladder, I’m going to help other people.”