The back-to-school season is in full swing, with children picking out new book bags, meeting their teachers and trading the dog days of summer for bus rides, recess and homework.
Hundreds of adult learners are also going back to school this fall to gain the reading and English communication skills needed to share in the great diversity and vibrancy of our community.
In its 30-year history as Durham’s leading independent adult literacy provider, the Durham Literacy Center has welcomed 16,000 people “back to school.” We’ll welcome 800 more this year. Whether to learn English or to read better, to master computer basics or to prepare for high school equivalency exams, adult and out-of-school youth learners will gain the skills to make them more competitive in the workforce and greater contributors to our local economy.
Paul Hunter is among them. Paul, a proud father and grandfather, was born and raised in Durham. He managed to graduate from high school despite being unable to read, but he struggled in his classes and couldn’t find the help he needed. Two years ago, he dedicated himself to improving his reading, and he meets with his DLC tutor twice a week to sound out words in order to read and spell.
Now Paul dreams of owning his own flooring business and traveling, and he is well on his way to being able to read all the road signs and billboards he encounters!
For people with low literacy skills, learning to read, write, speak English and use a computer can alter their future profoundly. Literacy changes their lives, and it changes their communities because a thriving community depends on the self-sufficiency of all its members.
So much of what causes low literacy levels can be attributed to systemic societal problems.
According to ProLiteracy, 43 percent of adults with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty; 70 percent of adult welfare recipients have low literacy levels. Hundreds of billions of dollars in tax revenue is lost every year due to high unemployment among people who lack basic literacy skills. And a similar sum in health care costs is linked to low adult literacy, since nearly half of all Americans have difficulty understanding and using health information.
Low literacy is a national and global crisis, one that keeps people in poverty, prevents new Americans from fully integrating into their communities and impedes the ability of young people who have made mistakes to rebuild their futures and make the most of a second chance.
In Durham, we’re working toward solutions. The DLC is transforming lives through literacy, rekindling hope and creating new futures.
As we have for three decades, we’ll offer tuition-free literacy tutoring, English classes for speakers of other languages, basic computer skills classes and high school equivalency exam preparation for adults and out-of-school youth.
We’ll prepare people to enter or re-enter the workforce and give them the skills they need to be successful. And we’ll continue to work toward the community we want to live in.
So in the coming weeks, smile at youngsters getting off the school bus and give a thumbs-up to adults spending their evenings in literacy classes. Join us in welcoming all learners, young and old, back to school.
Lizzie Ellis-Furlong, MSW, is the executive director of the Durham Literacy Center.