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Colvin's literacy movement

Can America make further strides in adult learning?

Ruth Colvin, the "mother of the adult literacy movement in the U.S.," turned 100 on Dec. 16. She is a longtime resident of Syracuse, N.Y., but it was not until Ruth was in her mid-50s that she began helping people learn to read. In 1961, when reading a story in The Post Standard about the results of the 1960 U.S. Census, Ruth became alarmed that 11,000 people in Syracuse were functionally illiterate. She could not believe that this terrible problem was in her city and set out to fix it.

Recruiting assistance from local churches, Ruth set up an office in her basement and began to recruit volunteers to train as tutors. She wrote training materials and student curricula, trained volunteers, and taught students to read. Ruth and her volunteers then started Literacy Volunteers of America in 1962. In 2002, that organization merged with Laubach Literacy International to become ProLiteracy, which is still based in Syracuse. Today, Pro Literacy serves 1,000 member programs in the U.S. and in 26 countries.

What strikes me is that the 11,000 people in Syracuse who Ruth learned were functionally illiterate in 1960 and needed help is a relatively small number. That is, compared to the over 500,000 Maryland residents (100,000 residing in Baltimore City) in 2016 who lack a high school diploma or sufficient literacy skills to become employed, or to adequately support their families. One in four adults in the U.S. cannot read above the fifth grade level and one in six youth drop out of high school. A lack of literacy affects most every social issue including unemployment, poverty, health and gender equality.

As the field of adult literacy across the country recognizes Ruth Colvin this month for reaching her centennial mark — and for still tutoring students each week — we also are thankful for starting the grassroots adult literacy effort which has grown into a national and international movement reaching hundreds of thousands of adults around the globe. Since the early 1990s, the adult literacy field in Maryland has worked hard to advocate for increased services and funding. Yet programs today are able to serve about 40,000 of the 500,000 adult residents in need of literacy and related support services due to lack of sufficient resources.

In the 21st century, functional literacy is a "must" given our world of skilled work and ever evolving technology. Earning a high school diploma and having the opportunity to learn sufficient basic literacy and English language skills in order to become employable and to support a family can provide the foundation for a better future. In Maryland, individuals find themselves on waiting lists for services, including tutoring. Although service capacity has increased in our state over the past 15 years, so have the numbers of individuals in need. By making appropriate federal, state, local public and private investments and increasing the number of volunteers in adult literacy programs, Maryland would be able to empower more adults to improve their lives through education.

As Ruth Colvin states in her book, "More Than Words," there are many reasons over many years as to why individuals did not learn to read and write or why they dropped out of school. And, unfortunately, a high school diploma does not ensure adequate levels of literacy. Ruth Colvin has worked tirelessly to encourage individuals to become adult literacy volunteers to make a difference in another person's life through the concept of each one, teach one. Her legacy in the adult literacy field will live on through the results of her contributions, hard work and the many student lives she has touched.

Thank you, Ruth Colvin, and thank you to the many literacy volunteers, professionals, supporters, and advocates who have contributed and continue to contribute to the adult literacy movement on behalf of our adult learners.

Sonia Socha, Baltimore

The writer is a member of the Commission on Adult Education.

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