Illiteracy shockingly high in L.A.

Half of workers unable to read By Rachel Uranga Staff Writer Continued immigration and a stubborn high school dropout rate have stymied
efforts to improve literacy in Los Angeles County, where more
than half the working-age population can't read a simple form, a report
released Wednesday found. Alarmingly, only one in every 10 workers deemed functionally illiterate is enrolled
in literacy classes and half of them drop out within three weeks,
said the study by the United Way of Greater Los Angeles.
"It's an emergency situation," said Mayor James Hahn, adding that poor literacy
rates could jeopardize the region's economy by driving out high-tech
businesses and other industries that pay well.
In the Los Angeles region, 53 percent of workers ages 16 and older were
deemed functionally illiterate, the study said.
That percentage dropped to 44 percent in the greater San Fernando Valley --
which includes Agoura Hills and Santa Clarita -- but soared to 85 percent in
some pockets of the Valley.
The study measured levels of literacy across the region using data from the 2000
Census, the U.S. Department of Education and a survey of literacy programs
taken from last September to January.
It classified 3.8 million Los Angeles County residents as "low-literate," meaning
they could not write a note explaining a billing error, use a bus schedule or
locate an intersection on a street map.
And despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent in public schools over the past
decade to boost literacy rates, functional illiteracy levels have
remained flat because of a steady influx of non-English-speaking
immigrants and a 30 percent high school dropout rate, authors of the report said.
The last available national study was conducted in 1992 by the National Adult
Literacy Survey, which found that 48 percent of the nation's working-age
population was functionally illiterate. "This is a ticking time bomb, a dirty secret we don't want to talk about. We are
losing the battle," said Mark Drummond, chancellor of California's
community college system. Dozens of community-based groups, including the Literacy Network of Greater Los
Angeles, the Los Angeles Unified School District and other public agencies vowed
to improve programs over the next five years by
connecting English learners with employers and educating 1,000 workers
with English-language deficiencies during the next two years.
A top priority should be making classes more accessible.
For example, the report found that
no school in the county offered Saturday classes or
tailored classes for adult students with families or multiple jobs. And while nearly 90 percent of adults take literacy classes to improve their
employment opportunities, only 30 percent of literacy programs include the
workplace in their instruction. "It's appalling," said Marge Nichols, the author of the study.
"A 50 percent dropout rate (for literacy classes) is pretty dysfunctional.
We haven't kept up."
Though the report offers no estimate for the cost of functional illiteracy, the
National Right to Read Foundation places the price tag nationally at $224 billion.
And local observers say untold millions are being lost by would-be employers who move to other cities in search of highly skilled workers.
Before he enrolled in a literacy class at the North Valley Occupational Center,
Adolio Gonzales, 29, was intimidated by filling out job applications or even
going to an amusement park. "I didn't want to go to Disneyland because I thought it was so complicated," said
the Reseda resident, who waits tables at a Carrows restaurant and wants to
become a computer programmer. Gonzales emigrated from Guatemala seven years ago and taught himself to
speak English by watching television programs.
But he often found himself confused by the simplest task, and had trouble filling
out an application at a fast-food restaurant two years ago.
"The application asked why I wanted to work for this company and I didn't know what to answer," he said. Then, he enrolled in the literacy class, which emphasizes the basics, like filling out
forms and reading the newspaper.
"I feel comfortable now, like I can do anything."
Rachel Uranga, (818) 713-3741