Pencil in hand,he erases what he wrote on the assignment sheets in front of him. It's his homework – fractions,division,multiplication tables.
Curtis,49,plans to obtain his GED by spring.
“It's always hanging over top of me. I'm always thinking about getting a GED,” said Curtis,who wants his mother to hand him the degree at his graduation ceremony. “I've heard of people hitting the lottery. That's going to be my lottery right there. That's going to be my million dollars right there.”
Curtis is one of the 44 million U.S. adults who lack basic literacy skills. According to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy,14.5 percent of U.S. adults are functionally illiterate. That number has likely risen as the number of foreign-born people living in the U.S. has increased by several million in the last decade. In the District,19 percent are functionally illiterate.
Programs that help these adults are often under-funded and rely heavily on volunteers. Some have waiting lists.
Many of these programs teach life skills and math on top of basic reading and writing.
Illiterate adults are less likely to have well-paying jobs,vote and participate in their communities.
Curtis,a D.C. resident originally from rural southern Maryland,dropped out of high school at 16 after “falling in with the bad crowd.” He receives disability payments because he has bipolar disorder. He served a six-year stint as a cook in the Army National Guard.
He's always had trouble with math,something he's tried to conquer at several adult literacy programs. He found a “home” this summer at Living Wages,the occupant of the small,two-story house in Southeast D.C.
The Living Wages headquarters really is a home,complete with a pot of coffee simmering in the kitchen and a garden blooming in the backyard.
The house bustles during peak hours,from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Several computers occupy two labs,while bedrooms and a dining room serve as offices and study rooms.
Seven staff members,including two funded by Americorps,and about 35 volunteers operate Living Wages. Students pay a one-time $20 fee,and the group has a $150,000 government grant.
Living Wages receives the annual grant from the D.C. government,which distributes federal and local money to dozens of literacy programs.
“We just try to do as much as we can do. That's just our philosophy,” said Bob Crittenden,Living Wages' director.
Crittenden said Living Wages works with more learners than federal and local grants provide money for. The agency couldn't operate without volunteers – a remark echoed at adult literacy programs across the nation.
Jacquie Brinkley,a programs consultant for the California State Library,said all adult education programs through the library system are volunteer based,with some compiling waiting lists of adults who need help.
The California State Library disperses the federal and state funding for literacy programs to 105 libraries. That money makes up 25 to 30 percent of the programs' costs,leaving local libraries to fundraise for additional needs.
“They raise approximately $3 for every $1,” Brinkley said. “It is truly a state-local partnership,but they are carrying the bulk of the funding.”
Each state receives at least $250,000 in federal grants every year for adult education. Additional funding depends on each state's number of qualifying adults – age 16 and older without a high school diploma,or equivalent,and not enrolled in school.
But some states allow public school districts that operate adult programs to decide how to divide funding between traditional K-12 schooling and the adult education. With a poor economy crippling school funding,many districts are deciding to concentrate more of their funding on K-12.
That's what is happening in New Jersey,said Hal Beder,president of New Jersey Association for Lifelong Learning. He said the state's funding for adult programs has nearly been left out of budget requests the past few years.
“It's unlikely that they are going to put it in this year and sooner or later [adult literacy advocates] are not going to be successful,and all adult high schools are going to go out of business,” he said.
The Obama administration has requested an increase of $74.1 million in adult education grants for 2010,which could help states that have curtailed funding. But $67 million of that would go to states that were shortchanged in adult program funds from 2003 until 2008 because of an administrative glitch.
According to a 2006 National Council of State Directors of Adult Education survey,40 out of 43 responding states have waiting lists for their programs.
States with the highest demand,such as California and New York,have the longest lines for literacy programs. New York scrapped its two-year waiting list and now resorts to a lottery system to choose adult learners.
At least 90,000 adults can't access the literacy help they need,according to the survey. That's a “conservative estimate.”
And many of these small literacy programs,such as Living Wages,don't just handle reading and writing. Adults must also tackle math to receive a GED or a High School Certificate,an alternative test that places more value on practical skills.
“The concept of literacy is not simply about teaching reading,writing and arithmetic,” said Talmadge Guy,University of Georgia adult literacy professor,at a recent literacy discussion in Washington. “It's about engaging with learners.”
Guy said one of the biggest issues facing literacy programs is systematic teaching,when instructors or tutors focus simply on reading or math without teaching technology or other practical needs.
“We need a broader definition of literacy,” he said. “In terms of life skills – Can you get around town? Can you fill out a job application? Can you read a subway map?”
According to the CIA World Factbook,the U.S. has a 99 percent literacy rate,equal to most of Western Europe and other developed nations. This figure differs from the Adult Literacy Assessment's 84.5 percent because of the way literacy rates were determined by the Census Bureau,said Andrew Kolstad,an Education Department senior technical adviser for assessment. The census used to ask if adults were literate in any language,and most answered yes. The 2003 Nation Assessment of Adult Literacy tests reading skills of respondents.
The survey,which is conducted every 10 years by the U.S. Department of Education,found that more adults appear to grasp technical literacy now than in the past.
Prose and document literacy rates remained steady from 1992 until 2003,but quantitative literacy – the ability to read tables,charts and other data – increased by eight points.
“The same kind of improvement in math ability has been seen in children in the last 20 or 30 years,” Kolstad said. “Tests in grades four,eight and 12 have been going up and going up substantially. Whatever is happening with adults is probably similar. It's part of the widespread use of computers and calculators,where you don't have to spend your time doing the grunt work of calculating.”
But technological innovations provide another tricky area for illiterate adults,who find it difficult to navigate the Internet,Guy said.
“If an adult lacks literacy,he is not going to be able to contribute adequately to society in general. Chances are that person's going to be on welfare and not participate in civic society. It's absolutely key to social well-being,” Beder said. “If you don't have that education,you're a member of the working poor. If we want a society that's built on the shoulders of the working poor,that's fine. If we want a society better than that,then the adult has to be literate.”