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As I See It

Too many Mississippians lack basic literacy skills

When faced with the fact that 30% of Mississippi’s adult population is functionally illiterate, we can wring our hands in dismay and move on to another topic or we can do something about it. Doing something about it is the mission of the Continuing Education Learning Center in Jackson and they point to a string of successes to support that claim.

First, the situation.

The Barksdale Reading Institute in Oxford says that, of the 2.8 million people residing in Mississippi, 700,000 are functionally illiterate. Thus, nearly three-quarters of a million people living in Mississippi cannot follow the simplest written instruction and perform the indicated task.
How can people possibly function in today’s society without the ability to read?

People lacking basic reading skills are limited to working minimal jobs with nominal pay and little hope for a better future. They can afford little, if any, healthcare for themselves or their families. Their children are not exposed to much mental stimulation in the home and usually don’t do well in school themselves and the cycle is perpetuated on and on, forever.

As an aside, Hurricane Katrina, in addition to the devastation to the Gulf Coast region, has spotlighted the poverty and ignorance that blights a large portion of New Orleans’ population. The difficulty in relocating and resettling those evacuees is compounded by their lack of basic skills. Many are illiterate and can’t be placed in jobs at their new locations because they can’t leap the basic skills hurdle to get a job.

Here at home thousands upon thousands of Mississippi kids drop out of high school every year. They pretty much disappear off the radar since, once they drop out, education officials don’t track them anymore. Most of these kids will continue the cycle of poverty and ignorance and be a lifelong burden to society rather than a contributor. Many, particularly black males, end up in jail.

Here’s what they have to look forward to. People with low literacy levels work an average of 19 weeks per year and earn a median income of $240 per week. Forty-three percent live below the national poverty level. Seventy-five percent of food stamp recipients lack basic reading skills, as do seven out of 10 prisoners currently incarcerated.

Seems pretty dismal doesn’t it? Well, it is. And, very little is being done to change the situation. One group that is working to overcome the problem is Jackson State University’s Continuing Education Learning Center. Located at the Jackson Enterprise Center in downtown Jackson, the center has been in operation since 1987. During that time, they have assisted more than 800 students in attaining their GED. Further, they have successfully trained more than 7,000 adults in literacy and employability skills.

The center was established in 1987 at the request of business and industry leaders to help improve the work skills of potential employees. In addition to literacy and GED training, the center provides training in parenting, employability skills, life skills and ethics on the job.

The center assists potential workers who want a second chance at their education. Funding comes from various sources. Currently, the United Way, the Mississippi Development Authority, the City of Jackson and the community colleges through their adult basic education program are providing financial support. Dollars are scarce, but the staff is dedicated. The center also receives private donations from concerned citizens.

The center has a staff of eleven including eight full-time teachers with degrees in adult education. There are three site locations: the Jackson Enterprise Center on U.S. 80, an additional site primarily for teens on Hattiesburg Street near Jackson State University and a new site in Canton.

I don’t know the answer to our high school dropout problem. I wish that I did. Nonetheless, as long as kids are making poor life choices, prudence dictates that we try to pick up the pieces and make the best of the situation.

All of us are aware that no one can function successfully in today’s high-tech world without the benefit of literacy. We know it, but we haven’t been able to convince youngsters that staying in school is essential to their future. Organizations like the Continuing Education Learning Center give citizens of all ages a second chance to begin climbing the ladder to success.

Thought for the Moment

The fullness of life is in the hazards of life. And, at the worst, there is that in us which can turn defeat into victory. — scholar and educator Edith Hamilton (1865-1963)

Joe D. Jones, CPA (retired), is publisher of the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact him at cpajones@msbusiness.com.

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