Karen Heller: Illiteracy, the scourge of Philadelphia

Posted: October 23, 2011

Among the nation's largest cities, Philadelphia has the highest percentage of poor people and the lowest percentage of college graduates. Compounding the problem, perhaps the city's greatest challenge, is a staggering and profound lack of literacy.

"This city is in deep trouble," says Judith Rényi, executive director of the Mayor's Commission on Literacy. "We got a problem. We got a huge problem."

Half of Philadelphia's adult population, Rényi says, is without the literacy skills to compete for "family-sustaining" jobs with benefits.

Literacy is defined as reading at an eighth-grade level and possessing basic math and computer skills, abilities that more than half a million residents are missing, according to the Philadelphia Workforce Investment Board.

The city has only 211,000 unskilled jobs, a number that continues to shrink, keeping many Philadelphians mired in poverty, as well as their children, a miserable inheritance.

"There are very few jobs left for people with less than 14 years of education," Rényi says, "and it's breathtaking how fast the job market is changing. What used to be sufficient training isn't anymore."

Our low literacy "is the underlying foundational reason why we have such low education attainment in terms of high school and college," says Lori Shorr, the city's chief education officer.

Children grow up in homes without books, though they can be borrowed free from the library, or inexpensive letter and number magnets on the fridge. They enter kindergarten already at a disadvantage and become easily discouraged. Nor does it help that they're surrounded by relatives who didn't finish school. Our graduation rates are dismal. Of the ninth graders who entered city public schools in 1999, only one in 10 completed college.

Poverty takes a huge toll, economically and socially, and strains services, while a literate, skilled workforce contributes to city and state revenue.

"The poverty problem is education," Rényi says. "We need to help our citizens get educated so they can take care of themselves."

Adults make good students. "They know they need the skills," Rényi says. "I don't have a problem with customers." She has plenty. Unfortunately, state and federal literacy funding this fiscal year was shredded by almost half.

"I need an army of volunteers, not just tutors but sponsors to support individuals and get them to their next appointment," Rényi says. Although motivated, adults "are easily discouraged. They've had plenty of disappointments in life." Rényi only assumed her position in January, and the commission has yet to build a strong website or computer network to track learners and unite services.

The way adults acquire skills changes with technology. "It's no longer a matter of bringing everyone into church basements," Shorr says. "They're going to be learning on handheld tools for on-ramp learning," cellphones and tablets that improve adult preparedness.

Uncorrected, a lack of literacy remains a lifelong disability. "A person walking around illiterate at 35 is going to be illiterate 50 years from now," Rényi says. That 50 years translates into low-level or no employment, an ongoing dependence on social services, or worse. Most of Philadelphia's prison population reads below the fourth-grade level, demonstrating few resources for legal employment.

"If you're not working, you're not contributing to the economic health of the city," Rényi says. "We have multiple generations of people growing up unprepared for full, sustaining employment.

"Every child who sees his parents learn grows up wanting to learn. We need to break the poverty cycle, not just the burden it places on the children, but the burden it places on the adult. Whatever you're brought up with is normal."

So let's change what's been normal for too long.


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.

To volunteer or learn more about the Mayor's Commission on Literacy, phone 215-686-5250 or www.philaliteracy.org.

 

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