Cover Story

Why Johnny Can't Read

Three out of 10 people in Acadiana parishes can't read ' a key factor in the vicious cycle of poverty.

Some weeks ago, I went to pay my check for breakfast at a local diner, and set down a book on the counter. The cashier glanced at the book.

"What you reading?" she asks.

"It's a textbook for a class I'm teaching."

She pauses for a moment.

"Yeah, reading," she says. "It's OK. But usually it's pretty boring. Don't you think?"

Across town, 22-year-old Chrystal Jagneaux of Scott sits in a classroom studying for her General Educational Development test. Jagneaux is enrolled in the federally funded program FRAN the Van. The program targets young mothers, providing transportation to and from the classes, day care services and early childhood education. (FRAN is an acronym for "Families Reading Around Neighborhoods.")

"One of the reasons I wanted to come back to school is because my grandmother dropped out and never completed it," Jagneaux explains later that day. "My mom quit school, came back and got close, but never got her GED.

"This is my second time," she continues. "I figure if I do it this time, then maybe my little boy won't drop out at all. He'll just finish."

The statements by the cashier and Jagneaux reflect the scope of challenges that confront teachers, school board members, senior policymakers and citizens in a region that arguably has the most dismal literacy rates in the nation. Poverty and failing schools have long been intertwined in southwestern Louisiana, and residents such as Jagneaux and her classmates must overcome entrenched disadvantages.

But educators agree ' at least when they are willing to speak candidly ' that Acadiana's most serious challenge is an equally entrenched, dismissive attitude toward education.

The figures for the state and the region would be alarming if they weren't such an old story. A 1996 Portland State University study found that only Mississippi and Washington D.C., had higher percentages of adults functioning at "Level 1 literacy" ' a confusing category name for people who are essentially illiterate. The study found that 28 percent of those surveyed in Louisiana could not perform tasks such as identifying an intersection on a road map or finding two pieces of information in a sports article. In the Acadiana parishes, the average for people functioning at Level 1 was more than 32 percent, with figures as high as 41 and 37 percent in St. Landry and St. Martin parishes respectively.

A litany of other indicators, from education statistics to research in the private sector, shows the situation hasn't changed much.

"I would say that we are slowly improving, nationally, so I don't think we are absolutely at the bottom," says Stephanie Desselle, senior vice president for the Council for a Better Louisiana. "But we are still well below Southern averages and national averages."

In a classroom at the Truman Montessori School, GED teacher Jackie Ware writes an essay assignment on the whiteboard: "What is the role of being a parent? Write an essay that discusses the responsibilities, the pleasures, or both. Explain your view with details and examples. Use your personal observations, experiences and knowledge."

As Ware writes, the women and girls in the classroom, who range from 16 to 28 years in age, plug away at practice tests and math and reading exercises.

In addition to the classes and day care at Truman, FRAN also offers home visits and regular instruction at various sites in the region's rural communities. The students work at their own pace but must attend at least 24 hours of instruction a month.

It hasn't been easy to live with the stigma of being high school dropouts, these young mothers say, but with children to raise, it hasn't been easy to return to school, either.

Vera Taylor, 27, of Lafayette, had completed 12th grade at Crowley High School, but failed her math test. She resumed her studies through the Adult Education program at the Louisiana Technical College, but once she got married and had three children, she wasn't able to complete her degree. Then Taylor's mother saw a flyer for FRAN the Van and noticed that the program provided day care.

"I'm not going to lie, I was ashamed that, yeah, I never passed my test," Taylor says. "I just want to walk down a stage and have that sense of completion in my heart that I did this achievement. But it did hurt me that after all the work, I didn't graduate with my class."

Taylor and her classmates said one of the most difficult aspects of returning to school is confronting something they did their best to keep secret.

"It's very emotional and hard for me, because no one knows that I didn't graduate," says a student who asked to be identified as M. "When graduation came, I just left. I came up with a story, and I went out of town. So now it's very hard."

Taylor adds: "In my neighborhood, you have like 15 people looking at you wondering, 'Why is she getting on that bus?'"

Even with the transportation assistance and day care, the women have found it hard to juggle their dual roles as mother and student. But the program's supplemental services, like home visits and book drives, and the support system the mothers have developed with their classmates, help make the GED achievable. Ware and her colleagues say 90 to 95 percent of their students plan to continue their education after getting their GED.

In describing how the program has affected her life, Taylor's answer offers hope that the cycle of illiteracy can be broken. "It's a whole lot different, because earlier this year, FRAN distributed books," she says. "Now my kids, when they walk in the door, that's what they head straight for ' the books. Even my 1-year-old is sitting down to listen to stories. And I have a 7-year-old who thinks she's a teacher. Sometimes I catch her in the corner reading to her brother."

Stories like Taylor's are a rarity in the region's overall literacy woes.

In addition to FRAN the Van, Acadiana has two other major literacy programs: the Adult Education Program, which focuses on young adults who have dropped out of high school, and Volunteer Instructors Teaching Adults, or VITA, which caters to older people seeking to acquire basic literacy. The amount of people who have completed these three programs numbers in the hundreds.

But there are 600,000 residents of Louisiana who have not finished high school, which accounts for more than a fifth of the adult population. And of this group, 137,000 have less than a 9th grade education, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. Every four years, between 70,000 and 75,000 Louisiana students drop out of school.

"That's a huge problem," says Desselle. "Where are all those kids going? This figure does not include GED students or transfers: These are true dropouts. The answer to where are they all going is reflected in Louisiana's high crime rate, high poverty, our workforce quality issues, etc. When you start looking at the number of people we are talking about, who are leaving Louisiana schools, that starts to answer some of the questions about why Louisiana's chronic social problems continue."

And if you track young people as they mature, the story only gets worse. Louisiana has one of the lowest six-year college graduation rates in the nation ' 10 percentage points below the average of the 16 member states of the nonprofit Southern Regional Educational Board. Since 2000, UL Lafayette has graduated on average a little bit over a third of its entering freshman over six-year periods.

An analysis of state and federal data by a governor's task force concluded the following: Of 100 9th graders in Louisiana, only 56 finish high school within four years; of those 56 graduates, 33 will begin college; and of those 33, only 12 will finish college within six years.

In 2004, CABL surveyed executives from 419 small to medium-sized business on workforce quality in the state. Nearly half of respondents reported having difficulty finding applicants with basic reading skills, computer or technical skills, while a whopping 71 to 74 percent said they had problems finding workers with problem-solving skills or "positive work habits."

Why has Louisiana fared so poorly for so long? Educators and policy experts tend to point to the state's poverty, which can be especially tough on children during the years that are critical to the development of reading and writing skills.

"When you are in a crisis, no matter who you are ' people in a crisis are just trying to meet their basic daily needs," says Pam Dehm, dyslexia coordinator with the Lafayette Parish School System. "I think most people are doing the best they can."

Mary Hefner, an early education teacher with FRAN, says the struggle with poverty is evident every day. "With every one of these girls, something has happened," she says. "They want to continue. I am just thinking about it from their point of view. Every one of these girls has some reason why they stopped their education, and now they're trying to continue. It's not easy to bring their child to school, but they're doing it."

Back in 1990, there were several other states ' New Mexico, West Virginia and Utah ' that all had lower per capita income levels than Louisiana, but higher literacy rates. (Since that time, the per capita incomes have risen steadily in all of those states, while Louisiana's has remained relatively flat, dropping the state to the absolute bottom per capita income in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.) And the CIA Factbook reports higher percentages of people able to read and write in developing nations like Mexico, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

"I really don't believe it's just an issue of poverty, but that's just my opinion," says Stephanie Francis, a senior administrator for FRAN. "In some cultures, for example, women are not allowed to go to schools, so they go without."

Desselle, the vice president for CABL, concurs. "Poverty is not an excuse," she says. "One, we have cultural values and traditional issues [at play here] and two, I don't think our schools have addressed those issues very well. We haven't had the talent or the training or whatever to take these kids and bring them up to grade level.

"These kids are already way behind, and it takes a different approach," she continues. "It may take doing things differently ' small classrooms and highly talented teachers. Local decisions traditionally have not been made to truly address these problems. You combine that with the home environment and what you get are kids who are not improving, who are chronically under grade level. I don't know if it has ever been measured, but everyone I know who has ever looked at education in Louisiana has felt that historically we may not have valued education as much as we should have, and we should have expected more from ourselves, from our kids and from our school systems."

State policymakers have struggled for years to understand and remedy the causes of the state's educational and workforce quality failures. On Jan. 27, 2005, Gov. Kathleen Blanco's Adult Learning Task Force released its report, which concludes with six pages of recommendations that call for the creation of an Adult Learning Policy Council to craft and guide policy; the establishment of goals for and liaisons with every parish in the state; and a comprehensive revamping of the state's adult education services, particularly the community and technical college system. In the aftermath of hurricanes Rita and Katrina, the report and its recommendations received scant attention.

The vast majority of decent paying jobs these days require education beyond high school, says Commissioner of Higher Education Joe Savoie. The jobs don't necessarily require a bachelor's degree, but they do demand at least a technical or an associate's degree. Opportunities for lower skilled jobs are not growing at all.

"It's indisputable that this economy is rewarding people with higher levels of education, and it is punishing those with lower levels of education," Savoie says. "The jobs are not changing ' they have changed, and the people who lack competitive education levels are going to be left behind. And from a broader perspective, states that do not have a more competitive workforce will be left behind."

The direct impact is that taxes go up to pay for the people and families who can't take care of themselves, who can't pay for health care, and for higher rates of incarceration.

"You can't escape the impact of this by your individual circumstance," Savoie says.

He asserts that a number of historical and socio-cultural factors explain the challenges the state and region now face. In generations past, it was possible to prosper without an education because of Louisiana's rich natural resources. People who had land could grow crops and catch shrimp and fish to make a little extra money. They could take care of their families and enjoy a reasonable lifestyle. There wasn't a premium placed on formal education, because education may not improve quality of life in rural areas.

"Take West Virginia, where you have coal mines," Savoie says. "They've got natural resources. But the coal mines go away, and then you have abject poverty."

Some blame southwestern Louisiana's low levels of literacy on the availability of work on offshore drilling rigs and elsewhere within the oil and gas industry. Historically, local young men have been lured out of school by impressive wages, sometimes to find themselves out of work with limited skills years down the road. The 1980s oil crash was particularly devastating, and today longtime employees in oil and gas find that advancement often requires higher level skills ' skills that they often do not possess.

"Now the earth has moved over the last 50 years, because the economy has changed," Savoie says. "And it is moving into high gear in this change. So we are leaving a lot of people out quickly."

To reverse these long-term trends, state and regional leaders need to wage attacks on many different fronts at once. "There are no silver bullets in improving education," says Savoie. "You need a Gatling gun of efforts, and they have to be sustained over a long period of time. And that's how you get to the cultural change."

Louisiana educators achieved some initial success at reform in 2000, when they launched the LA-4 early childhood education program. Fourth graders and, more particularly, 8th graders have shown significant progress in their basic reading level scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They have climbed from just below the national average to within 10 percentage points above.

But Desselle reports that deep problems still persist ' particularly with high poverty schools and high schools ' and ultimately the losses may be wiping out the early gains. The national IOWA tests, for example, also show improvements in national rankings among elementary and middle school students, but the margin of improvement steadily diminishes with each successive grade.

Savoie contends that the state is "well into it" in terms of reform, but significant challenges remain, including how to reach the residents who are no longer in the education pipeline. Louisiana has one of the highest percentages of adults who do not have high school diplomas, and about 80 percent of the workforce of the next 20 years is already working.

Despite recent initiatives, it remains unclear whether the recommendations of the Adult Learning Task Force are receiving close attention, or whether the report will ultimately be another casualty of the hurricanes. In any case, Desselle argues that many of these problems have to be addressed at the district level.

"It's not just one thing going on," she says. "It's cultural and traditional values issues; it's a school problem ' we may not have the teachers or principals trained ' and I think our school boards have not traditionally dealt with these issues very well, either. They have to look at their resources, at how they spend their money, and look at their leaders and see if the principals and teachers have what it takes to turn a high poverty school around."

Education reforms often take years to produce observable results. Still, as many of the adults in local literacy programs prove, every person who learns how to read has a positive ripple effect on the sobering statistics.

There's the story of Johnny Alexander, for example, who grew up speaking Creole French and didn't learn English until he was 7 years old. He dropped out of school in the 6th grade to work at a potato factory, but as a young adult in 1969, he went to trade school, where he acquired some rudimentary reading skills. Then, 30 years later, he enrolled in the VITA program for one-on-one instruction. Since then he's been attending the Adult Education classes at the Louisiana Technical College to earn his GED.

Recently, he attended the commencement ceremony for one of his children, who graduated from Louisiana State University, where he witnessed a 71-year-old woman get her degree.

"And I told my children I wasn't going to give up on my education," Alexander says. "After getting my GED, I'm going to college. I don't have anything to lose. I'm 69, but like they say, I still have all my marbles, and I'm in good health."