Atmosphere

Literacy Lapse

Colorado struggles to keep its residents reading.

By
December 2008

Susan Lythgoe could easily have been a mid-40s high school dropout with low-level reading skills and a menial job. Instead, she has become a towering advocate in Denver literacy circles. As executive director of the nonprofit Learning Source for Adults and Families, she has dedicated her career to improving literacy opportunities for the underserved.

Lythgoe's parents, a mechanic and a retired factory worker, both dropped out of school by ninth grade, and only a handful of her 45 cousins graduated. Her family's story is all too common in Denver: 20 percent of the city's adult population lacks basic literacy skills, which is worse than the national average. The National Center for Education Statistics classifies 14 percent of the U.S. population—30 million adults—as nonliterate, which is defined as having no more than simple abilities to read and comprehend basic continuous text. Currently, nearly 32 percent of Colorado's ninth-graders are reading below a proficient level, and about 12 percent of the state's working-age (18 to 64) adults do not have diplomas. The discouraging numbers have a high price tag; Colorado's high school dropouts account for nearly $3.5 billion each year in potential lost earnings.

Though Lythgoe hails from working-class roots, she says her parents made education a priority despite their circumstances, and they expected her to attend college. Armed with an honors English degree from Queen's University at Kingston (Ontario), and fueled by her family's struggles, she began volunteering with an adult literacy program in Aurora in 1987 and never looked back. Unfortunately, her outcome is unusual among young people whose parents have low literacy skills. "Because intergenerational literacy skills transfer," says Pamela Smith of the Colorado Department of Education, "improving the education of parents can change the inevitable cascading pathway toward nonliteracy for their children."

Considerable work remains to be done. There are 39 state-granted adult education and English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, but many are underfunded. In 2002, Colorado passed the Family Literacy Act to increase literacy services for families in need; to date, it's only received about one-fifth of the $3 million funding it requires. Last year, Governor Ritter created the bipartisan P-20 Education Coordinating Council, which aims to help students seamlessly transition from preschool through high school. The youth-focused approach may help, Lythgoe says, but an effective solution to end the cycle of transferable illiteracy must include similar support for adults and families as a whole. "I would like to know that in 20 years," she says, "organizations like the Learning Source could be out of business."

How To Get Involved

Volunteer
Become a reading buddy for BoulderReads!, a free adult and family literacy program run by the Boulder Public Library. Read to children, tutor adults, lead book discussion groups, and more. Call 303-444-5599

Collect
Gather your old books and help coordinate a December book drive for Metro State's Family Literacy Program, which operates integrated programs at four Denver Public Schools sites, including ESL classes and parent education. Call 303-458-8063.

Donate
Contribute to the Learning Source, a nonprofit founded in the civil-rights era on the notion that basic literacy skills are crucial to civil liberties. A $50 donation buys enough books for one adult. Or enroll your company in the annual Tattered Cover Spelling Bee to benefit the Learning Source. Call 303-922-4683

Celebrate Success
For more than 25 years, the Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning has helped thousands of refugees learn English and gain literacy skills. On December 19, community members are invited to a ceremony to applaud graduates of the institute's WorkStyles training program who are now ready to enter the workforce. Call 303-863-0188 or e-mail [email protected].