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Can You Read This?

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GETTING LITERATE AT THE LIBRARY: You’re reading these words just fine? Breezing right through the good old Indy? Well, for nearly a fifth of Santa Barbara County adults, it might be a struggle. Or just about impossible.

Some speak English but lack basic literacy skills. Some have dyslexia, which scrambles letters in a maddening, frustrating way. “I had one heck of a hard time in school,” Jane (not her real name) told me.

Barney Brantingham

“I couldn’t read a street sign,” she said. “In school, I was put in special education. They just stuck you in a room and treated you as retarded. They [L.A. schools] graduated me, but I didn’t learn anything. I couldn’t read the directions on a box for cooking. My mother and a lot of people put me down. I had never read a book through until I was 50 years old.”

Now, thanks to the Santa Barbara Public Library’s Literacy Program, Jane, who “hated” computers, now works on one, attends community college in another state, and was just hired for a $25-per-hour job requiring reading. “I don’t read fast, but I read, and that’s a big deal for me.”

Megan, not her real name, just “slipped through” an area high school a few years ago with undiagnosed dyslexia that she managed to cope with sufficiently to graduate. Placed in some special education classes due to her reading problems, she found herself in classes with students “who could not read at all. I wasn’t learning anything. They put you in classes that make you feel stupid,” she said. “I could read but just the basic minimum.”

A few years after graduating, Megan learned of the library’s literacy program and after two years became a vastly improved reader and writer. “I wish I had known about the program in 2nd grade.” It is for adults, however. Since the 1970s, federal law has required public schools to serve students with a variety of disabilities.

Lee (not her real name) came to the U.S. from Asia and “had to start all over” learning a new language. In her fifties and needing to improve her English for a technical job, she turned to the program. With its free, one-on-one tutoring, “This is a wonderful service,” she said.

About 200 people are working hard to learn or improve their English through the library’s Adult Literacy Program, thanks to a dedicated corps of unpaid tutors. One is Mary Lou LaBarge, a retired nurse who, for the past six years, has worked with a highly motivated man named Juan, who reads and writes well in Spanish and does math in his head, but struggles with English.

Juan came to the U.S. from Mexico at 17, became a U.S. citizen a decade ago, and, now in his fifties, is a licensed contractor. His education ended in 3rd grade. As a child, he had to work in the fields and never finished a school year, LaBarge told me. “He gets up every morning and reads.” Out of work due to the recession, he heads for the Wake Center for computer courses, including Photoshop. “I don’t want to waste my time,” he told me. What holds him back, his tutor said, is that “his world is a Spanish-speaking world. He is more motivated than I can say. It’s just that when you only hear one language and the other only occasionally…” They meet once a week for two hours, talking and sometimes reviewing something he has written, and going over a workbook.

“I always wanted to do this,” LaBarge told me. “I thought it would be a great thing to do. I always loved language and reading. I always thought it would be a terrible thing not to be able to read. (Juan) has tutored me, as well, what it was like to grow up in Mexico” and other life experiences.

One learner recalled how she wanted to take college classes but was discouraged by her father in Mexico. “I remember when my dad saw me studying in the backyard. He told me, ‘You are too old to study. You better find a permanent job and stop wasting your time.’”

Tutor Sharron Adams tells of one learner “who got a high school diploma that he could not read, due to social promotion. I’m sorry to say it was a California school, back in the days when people didn’t understand learning disabilities.”

Adams, who holds an MA in diagnosis and remediation of reading disorders, has worked for two years each with two learners struggling with dyslexia. One could read “to a certain extent,” but badly wanted to work on her English so she could vote, get a driver’s license, and serve on a jury, Adams told me. And that she’s achieved. The workbook-assisted program “absolutely works,” Adams said, “as long as the learner and tutor are willing to put in the long hours of working.”

The library’s literacy program is funded by the state and this year by about $15,000 in private donations and grants, according to Beverly Schwartzberg, library adult coordinator.

Flash: I just learned that in his proposed new budget, Governor Jerry Brown terminates all statewide library literacy funding, including Santa Barbara’s program.

Schwartzberg left me with the sobering fact that about 14 percent of Americans “can’t read a newspaper or fill out a job application” and another 29 percent are at “basic level.”

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