Downey Puts Adults on Path to Literacy

Times Staff Writer

"I'm not stupid, I'm just a slow reader," William Jacobi said in a quiet voice.

A year ago, Jacobi said, he could barely read at all. But now he believes it will not be long before he can read well enough to understand the textbooks and instruction manuals that will help him reach his goal of a career as a machinist.

He credits his turnaround to the 9-month-old Reading Education for Adults in Downey (READ) program.

Jacobi, 30, was one of more than 70 adults to enroll in the state-funded, $114,000-a-year program at the Downey Library.

Although Jacobi spoke openly about his reading problem, Matt Callahan, the program's first director, said most adults are embarrassed to admit that they are illiterate.

"I would say at least half of them (students) request confidentiality," he said. Some go even further. "Many of our students tell their families they're going to be volunteers in the library" instead of telling them the truth, he said.

About 120 students have completed the Downey program, said Callahan, who recently left to take another job. The program is now headed by Joyce Melbinger, the library's director of adult services.

Students in the program are tutored individually with the help of about 75 volunteer tutors, a computer and reading materials. Callahan said there is no required amount of time a student must spend in the program or in each individual session.

Callahan said the program is open to anyone who speaks English; Downey residency is not a requirement. The program is part of the California Literacy Campaign, he said. Other READ programs are offered in Long Beach and Commerce.

Callahan said that most of the students are age 30 to 35. And while enrollees have ranged from blue-collar workers to business owners, he said the one apparent similarity among students is the desire to improve themselves.

"They come in, for example, wanting to be able to read a book to their child," but they almost always end up wanting to be able to do more, Callahan said.

Callahan said that at least one-fifth of America's adult population is illiterate, and Downey's population is no exception. A pamphlet published by the California Literacy Campaign said that the percentage of illiterates nationwide could be as high as one-third.

In order to survive in the working world without reading skills, most have learned "a lot of compensating skills" such as getting help from a spouse or familiarizing themselves with simple, job-related words, Callahan said.

Jacobi, who has been in the program since February, is well-acquainted with compensating skills.

"I'd just ask for the special in a restaurant" to avoid having to read the menu, he said.

But although he had developed survival skills, Jacobi still is not sure how he and "about 20" other students in his class at Downey's Warren High School graduated nearly 12 years ago without knowing how to read. There were 360 students in Jacobi's graduating class, he said.

(Michele Orsinger, who heads the Reading Resource Program at Warren High School, said the school now has a remedial reading program as well as testing designed to identify students who cannot read well. Students also must pass a district reading proficiency test with a score of at least 70% in order to graduate.)

Jacobi said he was referred to the READ program through Cerritos College, where he is studying to be a machinist.

As a child, Jacobi said, school officials erroneously labeled him as dyslexic--a mistake that stuck with him through high school. In high school he was placed in a special class for non-readers and given assignments that his teachers felt he was capable of handling, but no attempt was made to teach him how to read.

"I think it's not that the teachers didn't care, they just didn't know what to do" Jacobi said.

Despite some of Jacobi's negative experiences, he is not bitter. In fact, his outlook for the future, as well as his self-esteem, seem positive.

"I learned early on that I could do anything--it just took me a little longer," he said.

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