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Family Literacy Classes Open Doors to Healthy Households

March 16, 2001|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ASHLAND, Ky. — She tells her kids daily: Don't be like me.

She dropped out of eighth grade. Lives in a cruddy apartment, on welfare, all her rings long since lost to the pawnshop.

Worst is the shame: She can't help her sixth-grade daughter with math homework because she doesn't know fractions. She has trouble spelling. Her grammar is bad. Reading can be a chore. At 32, she looks back and concludes: "I didn't do nothing with my life."

Tracy Scarberry is determined that her children won't feel the same. And she now has help keeping them on track. The concept is called family literacy, but it reaches far beyond the ABCs. It attempts to break the dismal, predictable cycle of dropout parents raising dropout children--by getting both generations excited about learning together. And, despite mixed results, it's fast gaining converts nationwide.

Federal funding for family literacy has soared from $15 million in 1989 to $250 million this year. About 6,000 programs have sprung up around the country. California held its biggest-ever convention on family literacy in Los Angeles last week. Pennsylvania State University earlier this year chartered the first institute for research into family literacy. And President Bush, whose mother helped found the National Council for Family Literacy, is expected to expand the program.

Family literacy offers parents basic education in reading, writing and math, with the goal of nudging them toward high school equivalency diplomas. Adults also take regular parenting classes.

But the most important component--and the one unique to family literacy--is "together time," a chance for instructors to model the kind of attentive parenting that helps kids to succeed.

It might take the form of an evening pajama party where teachers demonstrate how to read stories aloud. Or it could be a play-and-learn art class where parents help their toddlers mold clay. Some instructors make home visits, bringing along educational toys and showing moms how to use them with their children. The most intensive programs invite parents to their children's classrooms so both generations learn the same lessons side by side.

In California, family literacy is often tailored to cultural groups. Native Americans, for instance, learn to use their traditions of storytelling to boost their children's literacy. And the state funds a school-based program that teaches immigrant parents English--then shows them how to use those skills to help their children read.

"Many parents don't realize how important their role as their children's teacher is," said Barbara Van Horn, director of the Penn State institute.

The first family literacy program was developed in Kentucky in 1985, and the state continues to push the model hard as a solution to its woeful dropout rate. Kentucky for years ranked last in the nation in high school graduation rates. (It finally edged up last year to third-worst.) Ed Ford, the governor's education policy advisor, grumbles that the state has yet to "cultivate an appreciation for education."

A total of 14% of Kentucky's working-age adults are functionally illiterate. An additional 27% have minimal skills; they may struggle to understand simple texts, to read maps, to add and subtract.

Those numbers are actually slightly better than the national average. But the national statistics include millions of immigrants who are not fluent in English. (In California, for instance, 24% of adults perform at the lowest literacy level--but an estimated three-fifths of them are not native English speakers.) In Kentucky, the problem is home-grown. Generations of adults knew they could get work in the coal mines without high school diplomas. So there was little stigma in dropping out.

The result: In 19 Kentucky counties, mostly in hard-up Appalachia, more than half the adults perform at the lowest two levels on literacy tests. That means they cannot use a bus schedule. Cannot write a letter explaining an error on a credit card bill. Cannot figure out, even with a calculator, how much they would save in a sale.

Those struggles resonate here in Ashland, a drooping city of 27,000 in far northeastern Kentucky. Here, Angie Pennington quit writing her cousins in embarrassment over her grammar. Here, Cecilia McKnight found reading so hard that she put off her dream of opening a restaurant and took a dead-end job scheduling nurses that required her to read only names and times of day.

Here too, as indeed across the state, many low-income parents can sketch family trees full of dropouts. Take Scarberry: Both her parents left school. So did three of her four siblings. She was 16 when she decided she had learned quite enough. "They should have taken me to school and tied me in the chair," she says now, ferocious with regret.

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