Loretta Woods has lived on Chicago’s Southside her whole life. She’s 62 and remembers when the Dan Ryan expressway was built. When she bought a home in the Roseland neighborhood, she had high hopes for the community.
But today, she worries about the violence, addiction and poverty surrounding her.
Woods thinks the key to changing that is better adult education. She’s been trying to get a GED program off the ground for three years.
“The GED program is important because it not only gives you book knowledge, it gives you a sense of accomplishment,” she said.
The problem is that there isn’t a single GED program in her neighborhood. Woods has a list of 53 people who say they’ll enroll if she opens one. But Woods, who lives on disability checks, doesn’t have the money to start one. She needs computers, materials and staff.
She’s tried to get funding, but has so far come up empty handed. She says she’s desperate.
“I’d pay the money out of my pocket if I had it, I really would,” she said.
A young man, named Darrin, shows up at her door. He’s 23 and heard about Woods through word of mouth. He tells her he needs a nearby program.
“I don’t have a job because I don’t have a GED,” he said. “And I don’t have a GED because there’s no way to get to one. I mean I can’t pull the money out of the air to buy a bus pass to go to Olive Harvey or Malcolm X [city colleges] to take the GED classes. So it’s a rut I guess.”
The GED test costs 50 dollars. Without financial help, or a nearby program, Darrin’s out of luck.
“If you go to the white communities, or prestigious communities, there are opportunities to pursue education,” he says. “But here, there’s nothing. I don’t feel it should be. We’re not dumb.”
Becky Raymond, Executive Director of the Citywide Literacy Coalition, says people don’t want to think about inequality issues.
“Large swaths of Chicago struggle with basic skills and the lack of opportunity that comes from their skill level,” she said.
Raymond says the problem is bigger than Roseland. It spreads across the far South and West Sides.
“We are seeing high needs areas around Lawndale, Pilsen, Back of the Yards, with just a few programs in those areas. And more programs on the Northside, where there is less need,” Raymond said.
There are several reasons why there are fewer programs on the South and West side. Most are about money.
A lot of funding for literacy is only for volunteer-based programs. But people who worked with the volunteers said it’s hard to find people with the time and education in some neighborhoods and many people up north are unwilling to travel because of distance and safety concerns.
Also, with so few grants available, funding is competitive. And it’s hard to show granters you have successful test results, when many of your students start off with such little education.
Finally, programs in underserved neighborhoods often need additional resources.
Jay Landau is the Adult Education Director for Heartland Human Care Services.
“We’re finding students have multiple barriers,” he said. “Of course there are barriers like child care, transportation; they may care for an older adult. And there is also a lack of trust in the education system in general.”
Heartland Human Care Services has an office in Englewood. The average reading level of the students here is sixth grade and the classrooms are often filled to capacity.
The classes focus not only on basic math and reading skills, but how to use those skills on the job.
And next to the classrooms are offices for case managers to help with housing, employment, and health care. Programs like this – that combine literacy with social services or employment assistance – are effective. But they are also more expensive.
“A vast amount of resources are really needed,” Landau said. “And we would really love to expand and have more sites, but it’s extremely difficult. Right now, we are pretty maxed out.”
Surprisingly, even with all of these people in need, the advocates in this story all said the biggest barrier is awareness.
They said many people don’t know that the biggest indicator of a child’s literacy level is their parent’s literacy level. And people don’t realize that 53 percent of adults have low-literacy, and that it impacts whether they can get a job with a living wage.
Betsy Rubin, an Adult and Family Specialist at Literacy Works, says one way to fix the country’s economic problems is to invest in adult education.
“If we can find the way to get the message across to the policy makers, to the legislators, of how vitally important it is to provide literacy programs that work, [then] I hope we can get more money,” she said. “And that’s what it’s going to take.”
Darrin hopes that can happen too.
“Because then we would have a purpose for that day,” he said. “I want to be a chef. I think having a GED would help me have the stepping stones to be grown. You know? Start a life.”
For now, Woods will add Darrin’s name to the growing list she keeps on her desk.
“I have 53 names waiting on me,” she said. “At least once a month I call them. I encourage them. I am going to do what it takes. I promise you that. Don’t give up on me and I won’t give up on you.”