It's trying harder, say literacy workers is Baltimore the City that reads?


It was in December 1987 that Mayor Kurt Schmoke stated in his inaugural speech, "Of all the things that I might be able to accomplish as mayor of our city, it would make me the proudest if one day it could simply be said that this is a city that reads, that this is a city that waged war on illiteracy."

In February 1989, Mr. Schmoke chose the phrase "The City That Reads" as Baltimore's new official slogan. Soon benches at bus stops and city parks all over the city carried the slogan.

It's been nearly six years now since Mr. Schmoke said that Baltimore should declare war on illiteracy. It's become a banner of his office, attracting such celebrities as talk-show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Montel Williams, who have made public-service announcements, and Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., who, with his wife, Kelly, has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Ripken Adult Learning Center in North Baltimore.

But is the campaign working?

Those involved with Baltimore's literacy effort say an atmosphere has been created in which the city government and the private sector have joined to solve a problem that one literacy official describes as "immense." They cite increased funding for literacy efforts and greater citizen participation in those programs as evidence of progress.

Under the Schmoke administration, the Baltimore City Literacy Corp. was formed in September 1988 to coordinate literacy efforts within the city and to raise money from foundations and private sources. Its budget has increased nearly tenfold -- from $150,000 at its formation to $1.3 million this year.

"It's been a successful campaign," Mayor Schmoke says. "Look at the number of students participating in Race to Read, the summer reading program run by the Pratt. When I came on, the top number was about 300 -- now it's gone up to about 3,000 young people. The number of adult literacy centers has expanded, and we've created tie-ins with job-training programs. Also, in terms of awareness we've increased that. . . . But that is hard to measure in the short run."

One veteran literacy worker in the city says she, too, is generally pleased by the efforts of the Baltimore City Literacy Corp. "I'd probably give them at least a B," says Sister Judith Schmelz, director of the Learning Bank, a private Southwest Baltimore literacy agency that recently completed its 10th year of operation.

Critics of the city literacy drive point primarily to Mr. Schmoke's budget cutting for the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The Pratt's budget for fiscal year 1988 was $15.2 million. It has dropped every year since. By 1992 it was reduced to $12.8 million.

"That's why I think many citizens feel that the entire slogan has turned out to be a farce," says Boyse F. Moseley, the outspoken former principal of Northwestern High School and a commentator on WBAL radio.

Vincent Steadman, manager of the Pratt's Reisterstown Road branch library, points to the cutbacks in the Pratt's budget as evidence that "The City That Reads" drive has had "zero impact."

"It's not been backed up with anything," says Mr. Steadman, who has been with the Pratt for 25 years and has been manager at the Reisterstown Road branch for nine.

6* "It's an empty slogan, in my opinion."

Illiteracy remains

Nationally, illiteracy remains a serious problem, according to a report released in September by the U.S. Department of Education. It said that nearly half the adults in the United States have reading, writing and math skills so limited they are considered unable to function effectively in the workplace.

Although specific figures for the number of illiterate adults in Baltimore are not available, the Baltimore City Literacy Corp. estimates that 13 percent of all adults in the city have some functional illiteracy problems.

The dropout rate in the city's public high schools for 1991-1992 -- the most recent statistic available -- was 16.4 percent, or more than triple the statewide figure of 5.2 percent, according to the Maryland State Board of Education.

Also, the state estimated in a 1992 report that 38 percent of the city's adults have not finished high school, compared to 21 percent statewide, and that 34 percent had completed less than nine years of schooling, compared to 33 percent throughout Maryland.

But, as literacy workers point out, illiteracy can't be based just upon dropout rates. "It used to be that people could read and write, they were literate," says Sandy Newman, director of Baltimore County Literacy Works.

"That no longer applies. The new definition is based on different goals: You really have to be able to read and write at a level required to function in today's society." Ms. Newman could not provide specific figures about illiteracy in Baltimore County, but noted that 15.4 percent of the county population above 25 years old has less than a ninth-grade education.

"The economic health of this city is dependent in part on how literate the city is -- what kind of labor pool we have," says Sister Judith of the Learning Bank. "There are not too many jobs people can do if they can't read."

Still, says Maggi Gaines, director of Baltimore City Literacy Corp., "I feel that it [the city's literacy drive] has been a success. We now have a grasp on who the nonreading adult is. We have a grasp on how to develop programs for those adults. We have grown as a community where there are 34 literacy programs in the city, whereas there were four, five or six when this agency was formed. And there's another tier of organizations out there [not affiliated with Baltimore City Literacy Corp.] with which we can develop relationships in the coming years.

"I think that Baltimore is a community that has built its literacy capacity," Ms. Gaines continues. But she cautions: "It's not a quick-fix problem. We're a little bit more thoughtful about the time it will take to train a low-skilled worker in the work force."

Increased participation

However, the increased participation in literacy programs, Ms. Gaines says, is one indicator that the city has begun to fight illiteracy. According to Literacy Corp. figures, 6,764 persons were involved in city literacy programs in fiscal year 1993, about the same as the previous year. By comparison, about 5,000 participated in 1990.

She also cited as examples of the Literacy Corp.'s growth the three-year-old family literacy program at Lafayette Elementary School in West Baltimore and the Ripken Adult Learning Center.

Of the learning center bearing his name, Mr. Ripken says, "The reading center is growing. We're looking at things like expanding the curriculum."

Ms. Gaines says that the family literacy program at Lafayette has had similar success. About 70 persons participated in the Lafayette program in the 1992-1993 school year, and the agency considering opening another program near the Flag House Courts housing project in East Baltimore.

"At Lafayette, we're working with families in the nearby Rosemont community to bring parents and elementary school-age children to after-school programs," Ms. Gaines says. "Parents can work on their own skill levels, and kids have their own program. We even provide a family dinner every day. It's designed to help parents improve their own schooling and work on the success of their kids as well."

JoAnn Fruchtman, owner of the Children's Book Store, agrees that reaching children early is essential in the literacy effort. "We do a wonderful business in children's books here in Roland Park," she says of the affluent North Baltimore neighborhood.

"With our location, we draw people who read a lot. But we are trying all the time to reach out to those areas and those people who have not been exposed to literature, by going to different tTC schools in the city and having authors come talk to children."

But ultimately, literacy workers say, "The City That Reads" will need to become the City That Pays Even More. "There are a lot of good people doing this work and there's a small pot of money out there, and we have to vie for it," says Sister Judith at the Learning Bank.

Ms. Gaines broke down the Literacy Corp.'s funding of $1.3 million for 1994 this way: city funds ($125,000 directly to the Literacy Corp. and $400,000 from the Office of Employment Development); state money ($100,000 from the Literacy Works program and $30,000 from the Governor's Drug Abuse Commission); federal funds (a $60,000 Adult Basic Education grant), and money from the United Way (about $90,000). Most of the remaining money came from foundations, including $150,000 from the France and Merrick Foundation and $25,000 from the Joseph Meyerhoff Fund.

"I wish there was lots more money and we could do a lot more," Ms. Gaines says. "On the other hand, we have worked to raise money in unusual ways in the public and private sectors. We were very fortunate that Kelly and Cal Ripken came forward in late 1988 and became involved in the literacy endeavor."

'Key to education'

Says Mr. Ripken of the decision by his wife and himself to contribute $250,000 to the formation of the learning center: "Kelly and I were looking around, trying to find an area we both were interested in. We both knew that the ability to read was the key to education."

At the Learning Bank, the budget has grown to more than $250,000, Sister Judith says, compared to $12,000 when the agency was formed in 1983. "I'm not even sure we had a budget then," she says jokingly. The Learning Bank receives no money from the city; its funds come from state and federal grants, from such organizations as the United Way and from private sources.

Sister Judith estimates the number of persons participating in programs at the agency has risen from between 20 to 25 in 1983 to about 200 this year. From its offices on West Lombard Street, the Learning Bank offers classes in reading, writing and math for participants of widely varying skill levels. Evening classes are available at the nearby Evening Star Baptist Church, and a family literacy program is in operation at Steuart Hill Elementary School.

Still, Sister Judith says with a sigh, "The problem is immense. The Schmoke administration has done a lot. It's raised literacy to a new level of awareness in this city, and provided resources and training to community-based groups. There's quite a network in this city."

But Sister Judith says she's also concerned that despite the emergence of this network, the literacy issue could become the equivalent of the flavor of the month.

"I'm very well aware of it, and that's why I'm a woman in a hurry," she says. "Issues have a limited lifetime. It's an issue that impacts so heavily on the economy -- jobs, how many people are on welfare, that sort of thing -- so I hope it will be one of permanent concern.

"But I don't think we as a whole in this city recognize the true cost of gaining literacy," she continues. "No, it is not cheap. It's a lot cheaper than illiteracy, but it's not cheap."

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