Literacy matters. Teachers, librarians, policymakers and even probation officers all will tell you that. But no one knows it better than someone who can’t, or couldn’t, read.
David Geren realized the value of reading and comprehending the written word while sitting in his jail cell. The victim of his own bad choices, the 29-year-old Oakdale man had a child but no job and no prospects.
“A month ago, I was down in the dirt,” he told counselors at LearningQuest, a Modesto organization whose roots go back 40 years. “I couldn’t get a good job, I didn’t have a GED.”
After release and LearningQuest tutoring, Geren was reading well enough to study for and pass the equivalency exam. Now he’s reading – and comprehending – materials and manuals that will help him grasp a new life. He wants to learn welding; more importantly, he wants to provide for his 2-year-old son.
Geren is one of some 600 people being helped by LearningQuest. Of those, nearly 70 are taking classes while in jail.
“The ones who get involved and believe in us, they learn to believe in themselves and that makes a tremendous difference,” said Isela Gutierrez, who runs LearningQuest’s correctional agency program. “One guy got out of jail, got his GED and now has finished his AA degree. Then his mother came in to get her GED.”
It’s not an uncommon story.
“We’ve got around 56,000 adults in this county who don’t have a diploma,” said executive director Karen Williams, whose organization has 90 volunteers and 50 staff members. “Some of those have literacy issues and some just never finished school.”
Those who want help can get it.
“We’re not alone – the county office of ed, schools, the community foundation all are involved,” said Williams. “We’re helping people who need more attention.”
The Stanislaus County Library has a program that gives children in poor communities books. Another, run by Olga Cardenas, brings the library to juvenile offenders.
“Every Monday we have the outreach librarian come in,” said Steve Jackson, of the county probation department. “And these kids check out books that they get to take back to their rooms. They even form small reading groups … they work at it. These kids read, man; it’s amazing to see.”
The Stanislaus County Office of Education also works with jailed juveniles and provides books to students in poor schools. SCOE launched its Six Cups to College mentoring program in 2017.
The News In Education program – sponsored by McClatchy newspapers, including The Modesto Bee – supports literacy through classroom outreach and with help from readers who contribute.
Then there’s Stanislaus Reads, a program with more than 1,000 students in pilot programs countywide. The Stanislaus Community Foundation spearheaded it after seeing data showing nearly two-thirds of Stanislaus County third-graders weren’t reading at grade level. Third grade is when children pivot from learning to read to reading to learn.
Marian Kaanon, the foundation’s executive director, calls third-graders “canaries in the coal mine”; if they’re not succeeding, the danger is clear. “Literacy, it’s a gateway to everything,” said Kaanon. “That’s been our message; early literacy is directly tied to future success – academically and in life.
“To make informed decisions you have to be a critical thinker; to be a critical thinker, you have to be a good reader. Democracy hinges on our ability to understand the information that is out there.”
A teacher in Manteca, Tammy Dunbar (yes, we’re related) together with librarian Julie Hembree in Bellevue, Wash., developed Cultivate World Literacy, which includes 112 schools in 33 nations. Among supporters is Ada Okika, executive director of the UNESCO Center for Global Education, who says such projects are a “clarion call” for improving literacy.
Cultivate World Literacy uses projects to lead students through self-discovery then turns their view outward to the world. Any classroom can adapt the project, said Tammy Dunbar, to forge connections and create ideas to build literacy at home and abroad. Through Skype connections, Dunbar and Hembree visit classrooms (sometimes late at night here, but bright and early half a planet away) to interact with students and teachers. Students get an opportunity to interact and present their ideas to each other.
Dunbar’s fifth-graders used a Donor’s Choose grant to buy chairs and books they carry into a kindergarten classroom where they help kinders learn to read. If they love reading as kinders, they’re more likely to love it as fifth-graders, figures Tammy Dunbar.
The importance of reading and literacy extends far beyond any classroom, into our businesses, government agencies, public services, jails and homes.
Ask David Geren, the young man whose improved reading skills gave him realistic hopes of changing his life. Now he’s changing another.
“I read to him all the time; every night,” Geren said of his 2-year-old. “He’s got a bunch of books he wants me to read to him; all kinds of books. … I think Dr. Seuss is his favorite.”
Literacy became the foundation of his freedom ... and his future.