MACON, Ga. — Afraid of being left behind economically and culturally, this central Georgia city is mobilizing for battle. The enemy is illiteracy.
And Macon is not alone. Communities all over the South are waking up to the dollars-and-cents drawbacks of illiteracy.
One of every three Macon adults is considered functionally illiterate, the highest rate in the nation for a city with more than 100,000 people, the U.S. Census Bureau says.
"We're supposed to have a 37% illiteracy rate," said Cheryl Kelly, the director of Project Read in Macon. "We know we've got a big problem here, but the truth is we're not all that much different from the rest of the state, or the region, for that matter."
Kelly and a visitor were surrounded by banks of computers and color-coded typewriters in Bibb County's spanking new reading laboratory. The lab, which officially opened on National Literacy Day, Sept. 8, is the first of five such centers to be installed in the county over the next several years.
Several Southern Programs
Aimed at adults who read poorly or not at all, Project Read has a $350,000 war chest, including a $100,000 Knight Foundation grant and $46,000 from the Junior League of Macon. Project Read is one of several ambitious undertakings in which the public and private sectors have joined forces to help Southerners learn to read.
The City of Readers project in Chattanooga, Tenn., is such an effort. Backed by a $35,000 grant from the General Electric Foundation, the Chattanooga project also began Sept. 8. It differs from Macon's approach in that it is aimed primarily at schoolchildren and their parents.
"We are stressing that reading can be fun," said Shirley Spiers, director of City of Readers. "We're giving away books, setting aside a reading hour in the schools and making every effort to get parents and children involved in recreational reading."
The Southern Regional Education Board says one of every seven adults in the South reads at less than a fourth-grade level. In addition, the board said, the South claims nine of the 10 states with the highest percentage of high school dropouts. Listing the highest rates first, the states are Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas, North Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana.
'An Increasing Barrier'
Because of such factors, "shortages of educated and skilled workers become an increasing barrier to the competitiveness of Southern business and industry," says a report presented to Congress recently by the Sun Belt Institute, a nonprofit research organization that studies regional issues.
The report urged Congress to do more to eradicate illiteracy and to get private groups and businesses to join the battle.
Skirmishes are breaking out: In Alabama, Gov. Guy Hunt has signed a $2.4-billion education budget, the highest in the state's history; Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee have set up literacy programs; Virginia has appropriated nearly $3 million to attack adult illiteracy next year.
Mississippi hired a former federal education official at $76,000 a year, $13,000 more than the governor is paid, to head the new Governor's Office for Literacy.
"We've all got much the same situation," said Kelly, a former elementary school reading teacher in Macon. "Many of our older functionally illiterate adults, those who read below a fourth-grade level, quit school early to go to work in agriculture or in the textile mills.
'Pushed Along Through School'
"The younger ones, those in their 20s, tend to be semi-illiterate, reading on an eighth-grade level, because they attended class longer. But they frequently were pushed along through school, from grade to grade, on the mistaken assumption that we were doing children a disservice by holding them back."
Macon leaders realized the severity of the problem when local industries began complaining about the shortage of qualified applicants.
Last year, a Census report on black Americans listed Bibb County at the bottom in educational attainment by blacks.
But Kelly said Macon's illiteracy is not segregated.
"In fact," she said, "there doesn't seem to be any particular pattern among the people who have come to us seeking help. Our average participant last year was 39, and the ratio of men and women, and blacks and whites broke down to about 50-50."
A major catalyst for Project Read, Kelly said, was local response to a television program on illiteracy aired two years ago by ABC and public television.
Meeting of Local Leaders
"The day after the special ran, we were inundated with calls from people wanting help and from people wanting to help," she said. "The county director of adult education was swamped and he turned to me and said: 'Do something.' I went out looking for volunteers. A few months later, when it was apparent to everyone that we were totally unequipped to deal with the problem, the mayor called a meeting of community leaders." A steering committee created Project Read in January, 1987.