Literacy groups see progress in rates, struggle amid funding cuts

COVINGTON -- Much has been achieved in improving literacy in Newton County, but there's still plenty to be done, according to those involved with local literacy advocacy groups.

September is Literacy Month, both on the local and national levels, and in Newton, there are organizations working year-round to make strides in both childhood and adult literacy.

In 2000, 40.3 percent Newton residents age 25 and older had not completed high school or received a GED certificate, and of those, half could not read above a fourth-grade level. A 2002-2003 workforce literacy survey determined that literacy and high school dropout rates were the two most important social issues facing Newton County. In response to this data, Newton County Community Partnership formed a Literacy Task Force of representatives from business and industry, local government and various other organizations. From that task force, Newton Reads was created to serve as the local chapter of the Georgia Certified Literate Community Program. Newton County received Certified Literate Community status in 2009, three years ahead of schedule.

Newton Reads, a volunteer-based nonprofit, helped establish neighborhood sites for GED and adult basic literacy tutoring programs, work it continues today, as well as providing training to local organizations that want to start their own literacy programs.

In 2004, volunteers shifted their focus to early childhood literacy, and The Learning Center, an early literacy preparation program for children age birth to 5 years, was formed. The Learning Center has provided books and programming for children and their parents, and currently distributes about 6,000 books a year through donations from the community and grants.

Since Newton Reads and the Learning Center came to be, the number of high school dropouts age 25 and older has decreased to 25.3 percent in 2011, down from 40.3 percent in 2000.

However, the need for literacy programs "is as big or greater than it ever was before," said Mollie Melvin, director of The Learning Center.

That's in part due to the population hike and the increase in youths. In 2006, the county's population of children age 5 and under was between 5,000 and 6,000. It's now approximately 9,000.

Newton's population of children ages 5 through 19 has grown by seven times that of Georgia, according to a report by Laura Bertram with Newton County Community Partnership, and Census data indicates 39.2 percent growth in teens and 31.4 percent growth in young children compared to the state's growth of 7.5 percent among teens and 4.2 percent of small children.

There's also an increase in the poverty rate, with poorer families moving into Newton, and due to the high unemployment rate. Often, those families are the most underserved when it comes to literacy resources for their children, Melvin said.

Kathy Fowler, chair of Newton Reads, said parents also have less time to devote to reading with their children, as many are working several jobs to make ends meet, or perhaps suffer from depression due to unemployment. This is a problem because parental involvement is building a foundation of literacy skills children need in school.

"Before the third grade you learn to read. After third grade, you read to learn," said Melvin, so reading skills are critical to school performance.

These skills are also critical to attract industry and business looking for a skilled workforce, said Fowler.

The most recent data from the 2011 Georgia County Guide indicates that 90 percent of Northeast Georgia employers report difficulty in obtaining quality employees. In Newton, 56 percent say that's due to lack of basic education, according to Newton Reads. And 23 percent of residents age 16 and older that are not in school cannot locate an intersection on a map, read a news article or even add the cost of store purchases, according to Newton Reads.

Fowler said with all the discussion about Baxter International, it's important to remember that a literate population is necessary in order to attract jobs and make sure those jobs go to locals.

"Adult literacy is tied to economic development," she said. "All industries want a good workforce."

Newton Reads works with school dropouts to provide GED and literacy services, along with an English As a Second Language program. The organization also works with the legal system to provide support to juveniles who are mandated by the court to obtain a GED. Many youths in the Juvenile Justice System are three to five grade levels behind, said Bertram.

Newton Reads and The Learning Center are grappling with funding cuts, largely due to a decline in financial contributions from donors and fewer grant dollars. Newton Reads recently lost its paid director, and is now run solely by four volunteers. The state has diverted funds for many nonprofits to programs focusing on underage drinking, Bertram said, with the idea that it is a gateway drug and contributes to juvenile delinquency, unemployment and crime.

Prevent Child Abuse Newton recently had funding for the director's salary slashed as well and the volunteer board is now running the operation. A cut to one nonprofit can affect many others, as efforts to prevent child abuse and encourage more nurturing relationships between parents and children go hand in hand with childhood literacy, according to representatives from the local literacy groups.