Literacy in the District of Columbia

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Illiteracy in the District of Columbia & What You Can Do About It

A coalition of adult education providers and advocates claim that high rates of illiteracy among DCPS parents not only has a negative impact on the city’s education reform efforts but also on the city’s ability to produce a well-qualified workforce and to reduce poverty within the District of Columbia.   The DC City Council would seem to agree, passing a resolution that recognizes September 23 – 29 as Adult Education and Family Literacy Week.  The resolution points out that the most effective way to improve the academic success of a child is to improve the educational level of the involved parent.

The gesture is laudable but a resolution alone does nothing to help meet the needs of the 1 in 5 adult residents of the District who struggle to read and write, or their families who are inevitably impacted as well.   The story of one such family is featured in the video below, which was taken from the panel discussion An Investment in Adult Education Is An Investment Children’s School Success.

To hold the council to the principles of their resolution, a coalition of adult learners and adult education advocates is heading to the city council to ask that they support adult literacy and training programs in the city budget.   If you want to do something about illiteracy in the District of Columbia, you can make a start by attending this event:

Flyer 2013 AEFL Advocacy Day-Final 829-1

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DC Appleseed Report Calls for New Adult Literacy Strategy

Cross-posted from DC Appleseed
To reduce unemployment and narrow the gap between rich and poor, the District must help more residents build the basic reading, writing, and numeracy skills required by D.C.’s economy, according to a new report released today by DC Appleseed.The report, From Basic Skills to Good Jobs: A Strategy for Connecting D.C.’s Adult Learners to Career Pathways, was issued today following the release of Mayor Gray’s proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget.  Although Mayor Gray’s budget includes new funding for K-12 education, it is missing a critical opportunity to invest in education for the 60,000 D.C. adults who lack a high school degree.The DC Appleseed report finds that with an additional $2.5 million, the District could take a critical step forward on a strategy to help more residents build the basic skills required by D.C.’s job market.  The report shows that this strategy could at the same time bolster the District’s public school reform effort since children’s success in school is significantly affected by their parents’ education and their family’s economic security.The report concludes that residents who lack basic skills have a hard time finding family-supporting work in D.C.’s economy.  The District is home to one of the most highly skilled labor markets in the nation, and residents who lack a high school diploma have higher rates of unemployment and poverty than their peers with more education.“Unless the District develops a strategy to help more adults increase their basic skills and connect to career pathways, it risks leaving tens of thousands of D.C. residents out of the city’s economic growth,” said Brooke DeRenzis of DC Appleseed.  “Skills disparities contribute to the District’s gap between rich and poor, which is already one of the largest in the nation.”The report finds that the number of adults in need of basic skills upgrades far exceeds the number being served by publicly-funded programs.  It also finds that the District does not make the best use of its limited resources because it spends funds on adult education across multiple agencies without coordinating around a shared strategy or set of outcomes.The report calls on the District to adopt a citywide initiative to ensure that every adult learner in a basic skills program has access to a career pathway by 2020.  Career pathways help adult learners increase their basic skills and successfully transition postsecondary training, education, and work.The report also calls on the District government to jumpstart this multi-year initiative by investing $2.5 million in FY 2015 on the following activities:

  • A cross-agency task force to develop and implement a strategic plan for connecting basic skills programs to career pathways
  • An “innovation fund” to pilot, evaluate, and scale evidence-based career pathway approaches
  • Increased support for adult learners who may have learning disabilities

“Building a system that truly provides every adult learner with the opportunity to access to a career pathway is a multi-year effort,” said DeRenzis.  “If the District adopts the investments DC Appleseed proposes for FY 2015, it can make real progress toward achieving that goal by 2020.”

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Mayor’s Budget Shortchanges Under-Educated DC Adults … and Their Kids

Cross-posted from Poverty & Policy

Written by Kathryn Baer

Adult Educators and Adult Learners Lobby at the Wilson Building

Adult Educators and Adult Learners Lobby at the Wilson Building

“We have jobs and we have people,” says DC Appleseed’s Deputy Director. “But the education people have doesn’t fit the jobs available.” The real problem, however, as she goes on to suggest, is the education that many people don’t have.

This isn’t a rerun of the oft-debunked skills gap myth — at least so far as the District of Columbia is concerned. The extraordinarily high high unemployment rates in the poorer parts of the city apparently reflect a lack of minimal education credentials — and skills they’re supposed to indicate.

About 60,000 residents 18 years and older lack a high school diploma or the equivalent. An even larger number “likely lack the basic … skills needed to succeed in training, postsecondary education and the workforce,” according to a new DC Appleseed report.

Of the deplorably few adults in programs supported by funds the Office of the State Superintendent of Education administers, more than half who weren’t learning English as a second language have consistently tested below 6th grade level.

This means they’re ineligible for any of the programs the Department of Employment Services makes available through an Individual Training Account and also for most of the programs offered by our local community college.

Even residents who test higher often fail the GED exams. Their pass rate in 2012 was 55.2% — the third lowest in the country. And the exams got tougher this year.

Yet more than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require some postsecondary education by 2020, according to the latest projections by experts at Georgetown University.

In short, as things stand now, we’re looking at a very large number of working-age residents whose chances of full-time, living-wage jobs are dismal.

And as if that weren’t enough, we’ve research indicating links between parents’ education (or lack of same) and their children’s success in school. On the downside, children whose parents are functionally illiterate are twice as likely to be illiterate themselves.

This isn’t only because poverty rates are highest among adults without a high school diploma or GED — well over 33% in the District for those 25 and older. But all the daily impacts of poverty, e.g., hunger, homelessness, stress, obviously play a part.

Plowing more money into the rest of the education system, as the Mayor proposes, won’t deliver the hoped-for bang for the buck if the basic education needs of parents are neglected, as DC Learns warned several years ago.

DC Appleseed’s report identifies a range of problems in the District’s approach to adult education — including, but not limited to inadequate funding.

It outlines steps toward a long-range solution — essentially, an integrated system that connects basic skills development to career pathways. The DC Council could lay the groundwork with the initial $2.5 million the report recommends.

But the Council should also increase funding for the adult education programs we have now — both to serve more residents and to support better results.

I wish I could tell you what the Mayor’s budget proposes. But it’s characteristically opaque — partly, but not entirely because of the fragmentation DC Appleseed documents.

This much I’ve been able to parse.

The handful of charter schools that provide adult education would get more per pupil, as would the two regular public schools that do.

They’d still get less per pupil than what schools would get for any other type of student. And the new extra weight that’s supposed to boost funds for schools with students who’ve been designated “at risk” won’t apply, though some of the adults surely meet the same criteria, e.g., eligibility for SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

OSSE would get less for the adult education grants it provides. The proposed budget indicates a cut of about $3.8 million. This apparently reflects the fact that the Department of Employment Services won’t be transferring funds, as it did this fiscal year.

The Fair Budget Coalition had recommended that the baseline budget for adult education, i.e., the estimated costs of preserving current services, include these funds — a $5.5 million addition, according to FBC.

Hard to believe that the Mayor and his people couldn’t have found the money. They’ve instead put $3 million for adult literacy on the list of items to be funded if revenues prove higher than projected.

Let’s just say this is a mere gesture, since it would take $59.8 million to fund the priorities ranked higher. Setting this pie-in-the-sky aside, the total requested for all the programs that, in one way or the other, address the adult basic skills deficit might serve more residents than in Fiscal 2013.

But they then served at most about 8,000, according to DC Appleseed. That’s a far cry from meeting the need.

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DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition’s Advocacy Day at the Wilson Center

DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition’s Advocacy Day at the Wilson Center   

Monday, September 22, 2014 marked the beginning of the DC Adult and Family Literacy Coalition’s (DC-AFLC) ‘Literacy Week,’ with the theme of ‘Making Connections.’ On Wednesday, Advocacy Day, DC Residents were able to make connections with each other, but more importantly, with City Councilmembers and staff.

On a cool, breezy morning, Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, had long lines of DC Adult Learners and Residents on the steps of the Wilson Building, all waiting to get their voices heard. “I’ve been to the Wilson Building many times before to advocate for our rights, but this was my first time advocating for adult education,” said Southeast Ministry learner and Ward 8 resident, Diane Crews-Wilson, “I was excited to see the number of participants and staff from other programs in the city, it feels good to know other people have our backs, we’re all in this together.”

The event began with a panel discussion about adult literacy, highlighting some of the different organizations in the District who work to improve adult literacy. The panel gave the learners the chance to ask specific questions about the respective organizations, as well as information on properly voicing concerns to city Councilmembers. This was followed by an opportunity for the event attendees to split into groups, by wards, in order to speak directly with City Councilmembers. Although Councilmember Marion Barry was unavailable, Ward 8 residents were able to speak directly with one of Barry’s staff members. “I enjoyed it, we weren’t here looking for handouts, we were looking for a handup,” said Crews-Wilson.

On Friday, September 26, DC-AFLC will end ‘Literacy Week’ with the ‘Big Tent Meeting,’ which will be held from 9:00-11:00 AM at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Northwest.

For information regarding donating to Southeast Ministry, our programs, or volunteering, please visit, or call 202-562-2636.

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Celebrating Adult Education and Family Literacy Week 2014

The Washington DC metropolitan region is one of the nation’s highest-skilled economies. By 2018, 71 percent of all jobs in the District of Columbia will require at least some training beyond high school. Despite this, 62,000 adult DC residents never received a high school diploma or general equivalency degree (GED) and even more need to upgrade their basic English, math and computer literacy skills.  Reggie, in the video below, was in that position.


Strategies for addressing literacy issues in the DC region will be highlighted during this week’s Adult Education and Family Literacy Week, September 22-22, 2014. The purpose of the week, which is celebrated nationwide, is to raise awareness of adult education and family literacy issues, provide critical information to stakeholders and policy-makers, and advocate for increased access to relevant programs. A wide coalition of community nonprofits who provide adult education services and their partners will host three events in DC as well as an essay contest for adult learners.

The theme for the week’s events, “Making Connections”, underscores the idea that adult literacy impacts many areas of the community including health, children’s education, workforce development, transportation, social services and more. Key leaders and policy-makers will be part of the following events:

Understanding the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act
Monday, September 22, 2014
PNC Bank
800 17th St NW

Advocacy Day and Adult Education Panel
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
10:00 am-1:00 pm
Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

DC-AFLC Big Tent Meeting
Friday, September 26th
Thurgood Marshall Center
1816 12th Street NW

Low-literacy is a root cause of poverty, homelessness, and other social challenges our region faces. Adult basic education and family literacy programs provide the crucial bridge for adults to increase their skills and begin to break the cycle of poverty.

For more information, please contact:

Evita Smedley
Adult & Family Literacy Coalition
Riley Grime
Adult Education & Family Literacy Awareness Group

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El Salvador child coffee worker starts specialty coffee roasting business in Washington, DC called Cafe Los Suenos (Coffee of Dreams)

Mary Willson, Communication Intern

“The civil war was going on because the income inequality. The coffee plantation owners were making so much money and they were paying us only a couple cents.”

Carlos Payes started working for a coffee plantation when he was eight years old in rural El Salvador. In the midst of a violent civil war, he spent his days digging small holes in the harsh sun for twelve hours, making less than three dollars a day.

He reflects on the way of life in El Salvador while sitting with me in the tutoring space of Academy of Hope.. The juxtaposition between the pictures he is painting of his childhood to his modern life is striking.

1002671_10154010122615644_478421618_nCarlos demonstrates coffee
roasting at Academy of Hope

The clean cut man in a collared shirt sitting in front of me explaining his fair trade coffee business came to the United States nine years ago with not a dime in his pocket and not a word of English. He lived as his ancestors did a century ago with little change, in a village of five huts with no running water or electricity.

Escaping harsh conditions in EL Salvador is only the beginning of his story.

He dreamed of starting his own coffee business since he started working at the plantation. It seemed out of reach. “We didn’t have any money, any opportunities, not even a coffee plant other than one we kept in the house.”

He came to the US looking for a better economic situation. He started his new life in California before he heard of a thriving restaurant scene in DC, he moved and worked as a bus boy.  “From the moment I came here, I started saving money. I thought it was impossible.”

Carlos finished high school in El Salvador, the first one is family to complete the task. His father saved two out of the three dollars he earned a day to make sure his son has a future beyond the coffee fields. Upon moving to the US, he wanted to continue his education and get his college business degree and needed American credentials. For three years, he studied English five days a week at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School,  a school for adult immigrants in DC. The he decided to pursue his GED to give him the credentials he needed to enter college. After completing his GED he found Academy of Hope’s Bridge Program which helps adult learners get ready for rigorous college coursework. Carlos is now pursuing his associate’s degree in business administration at the University of District Columbia Community College. Continue reading

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Advocacy Celebration Empowers Students at The Hope

Informing, motivating, and advocating.These three verbs were used very widely last week at The Hope.

Education at The Academy of Hope is broader than a passing grade or even the GED certificate.  It is the power to make a difference in all facets of life including in the community, and at the polls. With the mayoral election in full swing, The Hope staff wanted to put on an event in order to empower students to learn about the issues that affect their lives and the DC neighborhoods in which they live and work.

There is an overwhelming sense of economic and structural inequality for DC residents. Learning about the issues behind these feelings is empowering for students.

“It’s a validation of discomfort that they feel, and there are real issues behind those emotions that their peers feel too,” Meghan, a social studies instructor and organizer of the event explained. “You’re saying ‘you’re right’. And that’s powerful. We’re showing that there is a way for people to be engaged and to change the conditions they’re in.”

1957985_10153986709320644_312973751_n Students proudly pose stating what issues the care about most

Last Tuesday, students crowded classrooms participating in activities focusing on DC geography and demographics, DC vs. federal government, mayoral candidate topics, government budget, gentrification, and voting disenfranchisement. At the final station, students proudly posed for a photo while standing up for the topic that mattered most to them and voted in a mayoral election straw poll. Mauriel Bauser won The Hope’s election.

Students gained mayoral candidate trading cards for each station, and classes competed with others for involvement. Student’s even presented mayoral informational posters at one station, and led the discussion. Continue reading

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