2 out of 3 Clevelanders are functionally illiterate. So what are we doing about it?

Rose sits in the corner at a large round table hunched over a worksheet in her bright blue knit sweater. There are peanut-butter sandwich crackers to her left, a pile of pencils to her right, and Roget’s Super Thesaurus in front of her. The lesson of the day is “The Cell,” and the multiple-choice questions on the sheet will test her comprehension of mitosis and the life span of various types of cells from red blood to liver.

“I like science,” she remarks. “I want to be a pharmacy assistant, so this is important stuff."

She pauses. Then laughs. 

“Or maybe I want to open a restaurant."

At 60 years old, Rose has big dreams, but knows the first step towards any of her myriad goals is to get her GED. One of 22 siblings, she dropped out of high school many moons ago when she became pregnant. Raising four boys has understandably dominated the entirety of her life to date.

<span class="content-image-text">Site coordinator Kara Krawiec, helps out a Seeds of Literacy student</span>Site coordinator Kara Krawiec, helps out a Seeds of Literacy student

Then on June 4, 2018, on a routine walk to the store in her Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, she looked in the window of Seeds of Literacy and saw Kara Krawiec, the site coordinator for the east side location.

“I could see her bouncing around, and I knew I had to go in to see what was going on in here,” Rose recalls. “I’ve been coming four times a week ever since.”

Rose’s story is one marked by an uncommon persistence in the face of an illiteracy epidemic that is shockingly commonplace. More than 36 million U.S. adults lack basic English literacy with study after study proving a direct correlation between illiteracy and the cycle of poverty.

Here in Cleveland, 66 percent of the city’s adults are functionally illiterate.

Pause there and read that last sentence again.

This staggering statistic does not result in an inability to read the latest pulp novel, but rather is an issue of our neighbors struggling to interpret the prescription on a new medication or decipher an RTA bus route in the face of a breakdown on the Rapid. This issue becomes even more striking when you take into account that illiteracy is distinctly hereditary: a mother’s reading level is the chief determinant to a child’s success.

Thankfully, there are efforts all across the city to address adult illiteracy and make sure that no Clevelander gets left behind.

Planting Seeds

Founded over 20 years ago, Seeds of Literacy offers one of the more unique approaches in Cleveland to working with adults. With open and flexible enrollment, no attendance policy, and one-on-one tutoring, clients can determine their own schedule and receive an education that meets them where they are. They walk in the door with a variety of backgrounds and an assortment of barriers.

“A lot of our students have had a negative previous experience in the classroom,” says Krawiec. “That’s why we try to make them feel like they are our top priority—not trying to fit them into a mold, but trying to create a mold that works for them.”

Although the vast majority of adults are pursuing a GED after failing to complete high school, some of the students come to Seeds of Literacy with a high school diploma in hand but without the accompanying reading skills that would correlate to the degree attainment. Even when motivated by the promise of better employment, personal fulfillment, or being able to help their children with their homework, actual transportation to the on-site tutoring can prove an additional challenge for clients.

With 84 percent of students living at or below the poverty line, Seeds of Literacy staff face the daily challenge of finding new ways to get students in the door, from raffling bus passes to creating book clubs to establish a motivational sense of community in the space.

This past July, the organization was slapped with a devastating new obstacle as the state of Ohio cut their funding by a whopping 14 percent (under the rationale of only supporting programs with hyper-structured enrollment of students in a traditional classroom).

Despite the financial challenge, Seeds of Literacy is staying true to their mission, persisting in offering their literacy instruction in their own customizable way. The success of their approach is undeniable with a 138 percent increase in GED graduates in their last fiscal year.

In late November, Krawiec herself received incredible recognition—becoming the first-ever ProLiteracy Hero, a national distinction presented by the largest adult literacy and basic education nonprofit in the nation.

“I have the best job in the world,” says Krawiec. “I get to support these students finding their voice which, in turn, can only result in changing the landscape for all of Cleveland.”

The Digital Divide

As the business of our daily lives has steadily transitioned from ink to pixels, more and more Clevelanders are falling into the technological gap. Whether due to a lack of access to devices or a dearth of the skills needed to navigate online tasks, digital illiteracy can prove as much of a hindrance to success as reading comprehension.

In early October, the Cleveland Foundation announced an investment of $480,000 in grants to address the digital divide. The funds will support free 600 4G unlimited hotspot devices for checkout at all of Cleveland Public Library’s 28 locations, as well as 300 hotspots at four Cuyahoga County Public Library Branches.

Partnering with libraries, public service agencies such as the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, and corporate entities like Third Federal, PNC, and Huntington Bank, the approach of the Cleveland Foundation is to create a systems-wide approach to combating digital illiteracy head-on.

“It takes a community to bridge the digital divide,” says Joshua Edmonds, Digital Innovations Fellow at the Cleveland Foundation. “We can’t move forward as a city unless everyone is working together to provide access to those that don’t currently have it.”

Next April, The Literacy Cooperative will lead Cleveland’s entry into the XPRIZE Communities Competition, which will award a prize pot of $1 million amongst various organizations revolutionizing adult education across the country. As part of the effort, Clevelanders will be able to download a free app aimed at empowering adult learners to advance their education, find better work, or simply read a bedtime story to their children.

“We are always looking to be creative and get the community involved,” says Laureen Atkins, Director of Career Pathways Engagement at The Literacy Cooperative. “It’s not about an app that is going to solve adult literacy, but rather an effort to connect Clevelanders with services that will open the door to the success they are seeking.”

Clevelanders like dutiful Seeds of Literacy student Rose—who hopes to complete her GED by June of 2019, buoyed by the assurance that she is not alone in her journey.

“I could never do this by myself,” she says with a smile. “I don’t think anyone can. But there are people here to help and, with that help, I know I can do it.”

Ken Schneck
Ken Schneck

About the Author: Ken Schneck

Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame, Ohio’s LGBTQ+ news and views digital platform. He is the author of Seriously…What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew (2017), LGBTQ Cleveland (2018), LGBTQ Columbus (2019), and LGBTQ Cincinnati. For 10 years, he was the host of This Show is So Gay, the nationally-syndicated radio show. In his spare time, he is a Professor of Education at Baldwin Wallace University, teaching courses in ethical leadership, antiracism, and how individuals can work with communities to make just and meaningful change.