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Californians Who Can't Read: First In A Three Part Serires

May 29, 1988

It Can Happen in a Jail

Or in a library. It can happen under the auspices of the Junior League. It can happen in the Polynesian Cultural Center of Fontana. All it takes is someone willing to learn and someone else willing to teach.

Whose job is it to teach reading and writing? The schools? Of course, but what about those who never attended school or who attended but somehow never learned? The three groups described below had a tough but simple answer to the adult illiteracy question: It's our job, they concluded, the reading buck stops here.


The Polynesian Cultural Center in Fontana, according to the center's president, Wiliam Talamaivao, was formed "to serve the needs of all Pacific Islanders."

At the center, Talamaivao assists his clients with a multitude of tasks. He helps them to fIll out job applications, social security forms, tax forms, amnesty papers, forms for business, licenses. He acts as counselor for immigration problems, family problems, career problems. Much of the time Talamaivao, who was educated in the United States but speaks Hawaiian, Maori, Samoan, Tahitian and Tongan, acts as an interpreter, whether he is straightening out a problem over the telephone or representing a client in the courtroom. All of his services are free.

A native of Samoa, Talamaivao has long acted as advice-giver for Polynesian famlies in the greater Los Angeles area. As he says, "We try to make sure that no one takes advantage of the Polynesian people."

When the staff at the Polynesian Cultural Center needed help filing for nonprofit status, they contacted a friend at California Literacy Inc. in San Gabriel. From that initial collaboration came the idea for a reading center.

More than 50 Polynesian students now attend evening classes at the center, most of them three times a week. When non-Polynesian residents in Fontana asked to enroll in the classes, Talamaivao set up a separate educational unit called the Fontana Literacy Center. Talamaivao currently has an all-Spanish class enrolled to learn English.

The instructional materials and curriculum were designed by Raul Anorve, coordinator of community-based projects for California Literacy, Inc. Anorve says that the Polynesian Cultural Center is a good example of a community-based organization (CBO).

"CBO's try to provide as many services as possible and at the same time address the problems and issues that are of concern to them," says Anorve. While they are not formed to provide educational instruction, more and more CBO's around the country have been instituting basic skills classes as part of the services they provide.

On the importance of education, Talamaivao says, "Without an education, you can't find a job, you can't communicate. It's as simple as that."


On any given day, Los Angeles County jails house more than 24,000 people. Approximately 50 percent of these inmates are either functionally or marginally illiterate.

All educational programs in the jails are conducted by the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District and the staff for the Correctional Education Division numbers about 110, including support personnel. Currently, there are 36 academic and vocational programs at all sites.

According to Mary Kernodle, Administrator of Academics for the Correctional Education Division, there are about 1,000 students a day enrolled in the academic courses, which include literacy instruction, ESL, the high school diploma program, and the GED (General Equivalency Development) program. Participation in all classes is voluntary.

Basic skills, or literacy instruction, are taught at 10 educational sites in seven jails. All students are pre-tested and interviewed to determine educational needs. Instructional materials include texts and workbooks, cassette tapes and audio cards, and computers. In addition, "life skills" materials have been developed by on-site literacy teachers. Life skills address the areas of consumer economics, health and safety, community resources, occupational knowledge, government and law.

Recently, the Correctional Education Division has increased its use of computers, video programs, and interactive technology to promote literacy. "We are actively developing our own video tapes, each one focusing on specific competency skills, and looking at a variety of ways we can use technology in literacy," says John Fleischman, Administrator of Media Services. "I will be the first to admit that technology is not the silver bullet; it is not the answer. There are many paths to literacy. A one-on-one tutorial relationship can be as powerful as anything--more powerful, maybe, than technology. But to an illiterate a computer can be a very attractive device."

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