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A TIMES PUBLIC SERVICE REPORT : The Los Angeles Times Reading Lab

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

May 29, 1988

Not long ago instructor Margene Larson pinned a computer printout bearing these lines from a student named Mina on a bulletin board in the Los Angeles Times Reading Lab:

Yesterday I absent because my

daught and I went to the Doctor

she was sick. wen they come at

home I clind my house, and I

cook for my children."

Two days later, Mina, an ESL (English as a Second Language) student who entered the Times high-tech program last Dec.9, corrected her spelling and rounded out her composition:

I love my mother and my 7

sisters my father live in

Mexico sometimes I write

a letter to him...

Six months ago, Mina had been able to speak English but not read above a second- or third-grade level. And she had never written anything in English: not a grocery list, not a letter, not so much as a note to her child's teacher.

On June 2l, at graduation in The Times' Harry Chandler Auditorium, Mina and 3l other jubilant survivors of a computer course purchased from IBM and put into a demonstration lab at 205 West Broadway, across the street from The Times, will be able to savor words, to face classified ads and job applications and read street signs.

For 20 weeks, the graduates have faithfully attended the hour-long PALS (Principle of the Alphabet Literacy System) course developed by educator Dr. John Henry Martin for adults who read below the fifth-grade level. The system, first tested in high schools, prisons and the Atlanta city government, is companion to Martin's earlier Writing to Read program now used in both private and public kindergartens across the country.

Combining laser videodiscs and personal computers, the program teaches touch-typing and computer familiarity from the first day, enabling students to absorb phonics as they progress through the story text they see and hear on the computer screen and through accompanying workbooks.

The lab, the first of its kind in any newspaper or business headquarters, embraces three goals according to administrator Barbara Neder who transferred from The Times' Newspaper in Education staff.

First, it enables Times employees to upgrade their reading and computer skills. Second, it serves as a demonstration lab for nearby agencies attempting to work with the homeless and poorly educated trapped into joblessness. And third, it functions as a showcase for a range of church leaders, Amnesty officials, librarians, reading tutors, school and police administrators who have come by to see if the process will speed their efforts to teach reading.

Last week, Chris Connick, formerly with the Times' Circulation department and a volunteer tutor, joined the staff, enabling the lab to stay open later at night for production and pressroom people and for adult education classes.

Times volunteers, working daily or weekly, and trained on the system, have come from every department. Beverly Johnson, Times television department staffer, opens the lab every morning for early instruction. "We're capable of running around the clock, seven days a week," Neder said, "But it's hard to pry the students away. Many come early and linger on. Some walk 35 blocks to get here.

Charter graduates include students from Downtown Women's Center, Chrysalis Center, St. Vincent's Men's Place, Union Rescue Mission, Las Familias del Pueblo, L.A. Men's Place and Puente Learning Center, along with parents from the Ninth Street Elementary school, a downtown school adopted and nurtured by Times employees.

Puente, headed by Sister Jennie Lechtenberg, has 200 additional ESL students ready for training, along with 100 adults who have applied for U.S. citizenship through the Amnesty program. The school is first in line for one of the spinoff labs inspired by the Times venture.

"Agencies sending students are required to send staff members as well to learn the program and help motivate their people," says Jean Sharley Taylor, Times associate editor, who sought and received approval for the lab last July from Publisher Tom Johnson. "Puente, for instance, now has four teachers ready to operate the lab it will establish with foundation grants."

After outfitting the lab in cooperation with Times administration and design staffs, IBM loaned Margene Larson, a Bellflower computer specialist they'd borrowed from that school system, to help establish the Times' lab and train tutors. Dr. Martin, who visited the lab in late fall, called it a perfect manifestation of his goal: "To teach people who are rejected in traditional systems. That is the vision."

Why do they come? A Union Rescue Mission student: "To finish high school so I can join the Navy." A Las Familias del Pueblo mother: "To get back the custody of my children. I lost them because I couldn't read." A Times employee: "I can take apart every computer in the place, but I didn't get beyond third grade." A woman who was sleeping in Pershing Square a year ago: "To be a poet."

The Times and the Los Angeles Public Library will present each graduate two gifts on June 2l: a dictionary, and a library card.

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