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Why can’t High Point read?

by Amy Kingsley

Robert Wilson is a hustler.

“I do what I need to do to survive,” he says. “I’m used to hustling. If you give me a car, I’ll pull it apart and put it back together again.”

He and his wife live in a single-story house behind a brick church on High Point’s east side, on a high, narrow road set between ditches. Theirs is a large lot; beside the house there’s a canopied slab wide enough for two cars, and room for two more cars in the weeds near Wilson’s toolshed, where they await his services.

On Fridays, Wilson slides behind the wheel of the moss-green Pontiac he’s lovingly maintained for three decades and drives west to the low-slung offices of the NC Employment Security Commission. It’s been a regular haunt of his since he left his last good hustle more than 20 years ago.

For nine years – until a bad hip sidelined him – Wilson supervised a wastewater work crew for the city of High Point. Back then he was at the top of his game.

“I learn by watching people,” he says. “If I see what you’re doing, then I can do it.”

When he’d get the work order from headquarters, Wilson would hand the pages to his backhoe driver and follow the man to the work site, sometimes in the middle of the night.

“I could picture the pipes in my head,” Wilson says, “and I could find a way to cut off the water just to the house that was having a problem, even though there’s all these pipes and valves running together.”

After his hip replacement, Wilson lost the ability to climb in and out of ditches. He didn’t bother putting in for a desk job; Wilson knew the kind of candidate the city wanted: smart in all the wrong ways with flashy credentials and manicured hands. So he handed in his tools.

“They’ll hire a guy who couldn’t focus in the real world,” he says, “but he could focus in a book.”

Wilson had been a model employee, with a long work history and a knack for the job. But he just wasn’t paper-pusher material. He lacks a high school diploma and never earned his GED. Wilson doesn’t possess the academic skills needed to run all or part of a city department – he can’t make budgets, schedule staff or write reports.

In fact, Wilson can’t even read the work orders his bosses used to give him, which is why he always gave them to the backhoe driver.

Because Robert Wilson never learned to read.

Before Fantasia Barrino won “American Idol” in 2004, she was more cautionary tale than role model – a single mother with an eighth-grade education, unemployed and living in the projects. Like Wilson, Barrino was functionally illiterate, but she was blessed with a soulful voice that lifted her out of poverty and her struggling hometown, High Point. In her autobiography, Life is Not a Fairy Tale, Barrino detailed her troubles:

“Shame is the reason that today I live with the secret of my illiteracy. But it is a secret no more. And my heart races just thinkin’ about what this fact will mean to my future. The only other options would be to keep coverin’ it up. Keep fakin’ it. Keep makin’ up excuses like ‘I didn’t have time to look over the contract’ or ‘I didn’t know how to get there, so you should come get me’ or ‘I left my license at home, you have to drive.'”

Adults without basic literacy skills find ways to get by. When they have to, they can hustle themselves out of the margins and into the mainstream of society. Before the advent of the information age, the hustle was easier. But it means always having “what she’s having” at restaurants, asking for directions instead of relying on maps and committing to memory the shapes of words absolutely essential for work.

“I would expect that there are a number of Fantasias out there whose circumstances might parallel hers to some degree,” says High Point Mayor Becky Smothers. “We know that illiteracy is everywhere but that doesn’t make it any better.”

Nationally, one in five adults is functionally illiterate, meaning that they cannot perform reading tasks above the level of a first- or second-grader. In High Point, one quarter of the adult population cannot read the title of this article. More than half of adults would struggle with reading and comprehending the content, according to the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.

High Point has more adults per capita who perform at the lowest literacy levels than Greensboro or Guilford County. The Herman Group, consultants hired to undertake a workforce preparedness study in 2005, coined the term “educational mediocrity,” to describe the standards to which generations of High Point students had grown accustomed.

“Adult literacy needs in High Point are alarmingly high,” investigators found.

In 2005, Reading Connections, an adult literacy agency headquartered in Greensboro, set up an outpost in High Point inside the offices of the NC Employment Security Commission. It consists of two offices, side-by-side, and a common area ringed by aging computers.

Before 2005, Reading Connections served all its Guilford County clients in its main offices in downtown Greensboro. In its first year, fewer than 50 students took advantage of its tutoring programs. In 2006, the US Department of Labor awarded Reading Connections a $75,000 grant for workforce development that opened communication with the Employment Security Commission office and facilitated cooperation between the two agencies.

The office is staffed by program coordinator Claire Dixon and a program assistant, Michele Abbott. They hold small classes in a meeting room they share with the Employment Security Commission and conduct computer literacy tutorials in the front area.

Reading Connections’ High Point office served 152 students last year alone, and nearly that many in the first half of this year. They implemented a tutoring program at High Point Regional Hospital in which highly educated members of the staff tutor employees with poor reading or English-language skills.

“The people who are coming in here looking for jobs need some help getting their GED to move into something else,” Dixon says.

About 40 percent of the High Point clients are non-native English speakers. The other 60 washed out of the American educational pipeline sometime before high school graduation. Reading Connections is their lifeline, an opportunity to get back into the mainstream.

Every class begins this way: Wilson opens his textbook to a page empty except for the letters of the alphabet laid out like teeth in a jawbone. Abbott starts an instructional video, and the two of them recite the alphabet in unison.

It’s the first class after a long holiday break, and Wilson is the only one of six students from the previous semester who has returned. Today, the first lesson covers the hard C.

“Is that a voiced or unvoiced sound?” Abbott asks.

Wilson lays two fingers across his larynx. “Voiced?” he ventures.

“Now, do you feel any vibration when you say it?” Abbott asks.

“Unvoiced,” he says.

“The letter C doesn’t have a sound of its own,” she says. “It always borrows sounds from other letters.”

There’s a short writing exercise. Wilson traces a cursive, lowercase c on the tabletop, then picks up his pencil and fills in the lines on his workbook. Then he turns the page, to a long list of short C-words.

“K…ahh…p,” he says. “Cap.”

Last summer, Wilson applied to an automotive repair program at GTCC. After a test of his basic skills revealed Wilson’s illiteracy, the community college referred him to Reading Connections, where he enrolled in a beginning literacy class.

Wilson is not a product of High Point schools. He was born and raised in Dillon, SC, a little town on an Interstate 95 straightaway, where he lived with his parents, eight brothers and eight sisters on a farm.

“We from the country,” he says. “We had mules and cows, we basically raised everything we had: cotton, corn tobacco, vegetables. I went to school until the eighth grade, I went through school with the rest of them, but I never learned to read. If I didn’t know it, I would hide it.”

A few years after he dropped out of high school in Dillon, Wilson took a final stab at formal education – he enrolled in the Opportunity School of South Carolina, an institute for at-risk students in West Columbia.

“I wanted to learn how to read so bad,” he says. “But it was getting wild. People don’t know people. If you don’t have money and your parents don’t send you money, you end up making trouble. People had guns, jacks, sticks, bricks, breaking into machines, breaking into stores, sniffing glue, sniffing gas.”

Shortly thereafter, he moved to High Point, took a job shining cars at a dealership and shoved his skeleton back into its closet.

Where it has stayed, except on Fridays, when he meets Abbott and his classmates over a broad conference table, beneath mounted pictures of florists, furniture workers and chefs.

Abbott, a native of upstate New York, traveled in the West with her husband before settling in the South. Despite their geographical differences, she shares a rapport with her drawling pupil.

“Cub,” she says. “That’s a hard one because no one roots for the Cubs unless they live in Chicago.”

Then, the video introduces the k words.

“Kept,” Abbott says. “Like, ‘She kept making me read all these stupid words.'”

“She kept me going,” Wilson says. “You see how she keeps me going.”

Most of GTCC’s training programs require at least a GED, including automotive repair. Realistically, it might take years of tutoring to prepare Wilson for the exam, Abbott says.

Michele Abbott came to Reading Connections from a career in newspapers. She and her husband moved to High Point in the early aughts, and she took a job as the business editor at The High Point Enterprise.

“I was covering Furniture Market,” she says. “And then I found out that just a block off Main Street was all this poverty.”

She’d just come from a job covering the Navajo nation, where educational issues “were about what you’d expect.”

High Point, North Carolina’s “International City,” had been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs to factories in developing countries for several years. The textile jobs went first, to Mexican maquiladoras, followed by furniture work.

Soon all that remained of the High Point furniture industry were the vacated husks of factories standing like monuments on the road to town. The people who had worked in those factories suddenly flooded the offices of the Employment Securities Commission.

What social workers and business owners found was that the laid-off workers had few transferable skills. Back when generations followed each other through the factory doors, employers needed little more than a strong back and a good work ethic, and work-eligible teens routinely chose jobs over diplomas.

The arrangement benefited everyone involved. Young workers were assured a good salary, medical coverage and a pension after years of hard labor. Business owners gained a dependable supply of loyal workers. High School students who chose to continue their education didn’t stand to gain much in the bargain.

“[The furniture industry] has a lot of uneducated people in the workforce,” Abbott says, “and deliberately so, because it serves the businessmen to keep the labor force uneducated.”

When the factories moved out of High Point, the workers suddenly found themselves unable to compete in a labor market that favored specialized, educated workers. Workers with profound educational needs swamped community colleges, which had to bring them up to speed in basic education classes before granting them GEDs and training them for new jobs in computer and biotech industries.

When Wilson first arrived in High Point, jobs for him were plentiful.

“I just started getting jobs,” he said. “Working. If I can get on a job, I can do the job. Until they come out with these computers.”

‘We cannot solve a work issue, a health issue, a civic issue, a parenting issue,” says Jennifer Gore, executive director of Reading Connections. “But literacy is a part of all of those things.”

Behind Gore’s desk, two plate-glass windows frame views of Center City Park and Center Pointe Condominiums, a mirrored high rise undergoing construction. In front of her, the rest of the office unfolds along a narrow corridor: computer lab, conference room, library, reception.

From here, a small staff facilitates tutoring and outreach services for some 560 clients. Guilford County residents who call seeking services are matched with tutors – a process that can take months – and funneled into small group classes in the meantime.

Reading Connections is the only literacy agency with a memorandum of agreement with the local community college. They work closely with the basic education department at GTCC to augment literacy classes provided through the college.

“We know that only six to ten percent of the one in five who are illiterate are going to seek out services,” Gore says.

They are a resource for willing students like Wilson.

Gore has been running the agency since late 2004. Since then, it’s grown exponentially, but it’s still reaching only a portion of the people who need its services.

“How does illiteracy happen?” she asks. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”

One way is through parents, who pass literacy skills down to their children. Wilson’s parents were sharecroppers who never set foot in the schoolhouse, and none of his six children graduated from high school. Two have their GEDs, and one has an associate’s degree from GTCC.

“If you’re a parent and you’re not well educated and you don’t have a lot of resources,” Gore says, “and your child isn’t doing well in school and you didn’t do well in school, well that’s what is expected.”

New companies have been moving into High Point with an eye on plumbing the deep labor pool for enterprises like biotechnology and logistics. Polo, the clothing brand, set up two warehouses near Piedmont Triad International Airport, and Banner Pharmacaps moved its offices to the north side of town.

“Well I think a wonderful resource we have here is GTCC,” Mayor Becky Smothers says, “their willingness and history of working with new industries.”

The community college has aggressively added training programs tailored to the needs of new industries like biotechnology and aviation. But as it has developed the new programs, an alarming trend has emerged: Graduates of Guilford County Schools need increasing amounts of remedial education before they can embark on vocational curriculum.

The schools have been tackling the problem, but at the same time, they been charged with implementing the federal No Child Left Behind mandate. The burden of educating Guilford County residents for new jobs at new companies has fallen to the high schools and community colleges. Unfortunately, the kind of funding needed to support that mission hasn’t followed.

If, in the war against illiteracy, institutions like Guilford County Schools and GTCC are the battleships, then Reading Connections is the swift boat.

“It’s like sailing a boat,” Gore says. “As circumstances change, you have to take all that into consideration. You have to keep tacking in the wind; you have to make course corrections.”

Looking ahead, Gore would like to move Reading Connections out of the Self-Help Building and onto a college campus where the agency could tap academic and human resources.

“We need to reach deeper into communities to bring people back into the mainstream,” she says. “That person who can’t read, even if they’ve lived in the US all their life, they are not fully participating in society.”

During the next two classes, another student, Martin Saldierna joins Wilson and Abbott. Saldierna, a native of Mexico, never attended school in his home country, but has lived in the US long enough to speak fluent English.

He and Wilson are tackling consonant blends.

“What you’re doing is putting these two consonants together and making one sound out of it,” Abbott says.

The video instructs Wilson and Saldierna to draw short arrows under the consonant pairs. This particular curriculum strives to appeal to all types of learners: visual, auditory, kinetic and tactile.

Wilson struggles with the lesson.

“Pim,” he reads.

“No… you’re leaving out a letter,” Abbott corrects.

“Prim,” he says.

The lesson runs late, and after an exhausting run through the reading list, the teacher and students lean back in their chairs. The last item of business is a listening exercise. Last week, the instructor from the video introduced Wilson to a fable by Aesop, “The Fox and the Grapes.”

This week after a rhyming exercise, the instructor repeats the fable as a poem. The week before, Abbott had asked Wilson what he thought it meant.

“It’s easy to say something is no good if you can’t have it,” Abbott says.

“Yeah,” Wilson says. “It’s like if there’s a woman who won’t go with you, and you say, ‘I never liked her anyway.'”

For years, literacy was a thing just beyond Wilson’s grasp, like the fabled grapes of the story. But instead of walking away from the prize, he’s climbing toward it, his head buried in a soft-cover textbook.

“Robert, you worked your tail off this week,” Abbott says.

“It seems like we get a little closer every week,” he says. “But it’s just once a week. That’s a long time. Once a week.”

Wilson and his wife struggle to make ends meet on his retirement check and irregular employment as a shade-tree mechanic. The inside of their house is clean and dim, with back issues of Jet, ESPN the Magazine and Auto Trader fanned out on a footrest. Pictures of family hang on every wall in the house, and collard greens, rice and neck bones simmer in the kitchen.

In the master bedroom, the Wilsons have large pictures of their grandson Anthony, whom they raised until he was nine. Framed certificates of academic achievement flank his portraits, and Wilson brags about his grandson, and how he used to help out around the school.

“Anthony was good at everything,” Wilson says. “He got a brain. His teachers at school said that was the smartest little boy. Them teachers were crazy about him.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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