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Finding Common Ground On Literacy

Two of every three Clevelanders read at the seventh-grade level or below – making 66 percent of adult Clevelanders functionally illiterate. This means it is hard to find employment, read a prescription bottle or discern a bus schedule.

At the nonprofit Seeds of Literacy, 920 people last year walked through the doors – and only 48 people, or five percent, had a ninth-grade proficiency or better. Ninth-grade-proficiency is the minimum education required for almost all job-training programs.

Cleveland exists in a literacy desert. As the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards expands its footprint into the community, are there opportunities to disrupt this grim landscape?

To ponder this question, members of the Anisfield-Wolf community shared a table with Seeds of Literacy staff and volunteers as part of the Cleveland Foundation’s Common Ground initiative, designed to foster conversations to build equity and resilience in Northeast Ohio. We broke bread on Cleveland’s west side and spent more than two hours discussing educational inequality, workforce readiness and national and state policy. The table of 12 hosted library staff, community volunteers, teachers and professors, staff from nonprofits – all working in sectors that might stem our literacy crisis.

For more than 20 years, Seeds of Literacy has worked to improve literacy rates among adults, offering free one-on-one tutoring in basic education and GED prep. The majority of clientele are 27-41 years old, and 88 percent live in poverty. They seek a GED or better literacy skills so they can move into a better-paying job. But some, says executive director Bonnie Entler, just want the personal satisfaction of accomplishing a goal.

“We’ll have people who want to do it for their kids,” Entler said. “One older gentleman wanted to learn how to read so he could read the newspaper with his wife.”

Denise Crudup, Special Assistant to the Director for Education and Learning Cleveland Public Library, said Cleveland is looking to other library systems for success in literacy programming, such as Philadelphia’s Culinary Literacy Center, where a commercial-grade kitchen serves as a classroom for math, science and reading lessons.

In the classroom, it’s about reaching students as early as possible, the educators around the table agreed. Charles Ellenbogen, a high school English teacher with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, recommended focusing on birth through age five and tackling the “word gap.” That chasm is the reality that children born into low-income families hear roughly 30 million fewer words than more affluent peers, a statistic that sets the stage for a lifetime of “catching up.”

“It just seems like the most opportunity is in early education,” he argued.

College English professor Michelle Rankins recounted a student who approached her at the beginning of a semester with great self-awareness. “I’m not prepared,” she confided. Rankins met with her frequently over the semester to help her grasp the material and was proud of the student’s effort, which earned her a C. “I’m not just here to teach them. I’m here to help them through life.”

Seeds of Literacy board member Gabe Crenshaw suggested this work requires a climate where students like Rankins’ feel empowered. “We have to remove the stigma of tutoring, of thinking something is wrong with you because you need help.”

If that stigma is breached, how do people find out about Seeds of Literacy?

Most often, it’s word of mouth, development officer Jo Steigerwald said. “Nearly half of our students find us through talking to their friends, family members. But they’re also finding us online.” Additionally, Seeds of Literacy also tries to have a presence in the local libraries, schools and churches.

Seeds of Literacy graduates spoke in June at their ceremony of the staff that checked in and beckoned them back on the long road to a GED.

Before adjourning, everyone at the Common Ground table counseled urgently. “What if we could go ‘All In’ for literacy?” Ellenbogen wondered, referencing the Cleveland Cavaliers’ rallying cry. “What would be the outcome there?”

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