First Lady’s First Priority

Times Staff Writer

At a White House luncheon in the grand State Dining Room, a toddler in a highchair couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

It was not the portrait of Lincoln, the elegant china, the sparkling chandeliers, the bright linen or the enormous mound of fuchsia roses and tulips at the center of the table that impressed her. Nor had speeches by President Bush and the First Lady deterred her from her business of babbling and banging silverware.

But on a nearby television screen a video showed her very own mother, 25-year-old Betty Fennell, talking about her recent efforts to learn to read. And 3-year-old Felecia sat in rapt attention.

A high school dropout and single mother of four, Fennell and her daughter have been attending a program sponsored by the Kenan Trust Family Literacy Project in Fayetteville, N.C., which teaches mothers to read while it provides preschool instruction.


“I’m going to make it,” Fennell was saying proudly on the video screen. “I feel great about myself.”

‘Mommy,’ She Shouts

“Mommy!” shouted an excited little voice from one of the 12 tables.

This is the level of enthusiasm the First Lady is hoping will continue to be generated by the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, which was announced at the elegant luncheon this week. The foundation will be primarily a money-moving machine that will raise funds and pass them on to existing literacy projects that take an intergenerational approach to literacy, or would like to.


The program is the cornerstone of Mrs. Bush’s effort to attack the nation’s startling illiteracy problem: More than 20 million adult Americans cannot read well enough to decipher job applications or menus at a time when the country’s labor needs are tilting away from manufacturing to services and computer technology. Last year New York Telephone tested 22,880 applicants for jobs as repair technicians and operators; only 14% of them were literate enough to pass the test.

‘Need Somebody Black’

The 120 luncheon guests seemed to welcome Mrs. Bush’s announcement, although Carrie Haynes of Los Angeles’ Assault on Literacy project noted, “We need somebody black on that board.” The eight board members are white.

But Haynes, who has worked with students in Watts, was otherwise approving of the effort.

“The idea’s fantastic,” Haynes said. “I’d like to get in there and work on it.”

Because it might be considered unseemly for the First Lady to be putting the arm on people for money, her involvement will be “at arms length,” lending her name as honorary chairwoman.

Much of the nuts-and-bolts work will be done by Joan Abrahamson, who received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, commonly known as a “genius grant,” in 1985 for creating her own think tank, the Los Angeles-based Jefferson Institute. The institute, she has said, is there to “identify and seek solutions to major societal concerns in the areas of creativity, the future of cities, international security and international economics.”

An Expansive Resume


If that seems a wide range, Abrahamson, 37, has an even more expansive resume--not to mention a fat Frequent Flyer file. She worked for then-Vice President Bush as a White House fellow while maintaining her artist’s studio in Manhattan’s SoHo and an office at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. Now Washington will be added to the list of cities where she’ll operate, visiting “at least once or twice a month.” She was educated at Yale (the first class to take women), Harvard, Stanford and UC Berkeley. She also writes songs and has a baby boy.

Abrahamson has noticed her toddler flipping through the Time magazines around their home in Los Angeles.

“I wondered why he did it and I realized, he’s just watching us,” Abrahamson said. “If you don’t have reading materials in the home the child doesn’t develop that kind of curiosity.”

In a nutshell, this is the strategy that Mrs. Bush hopes to see implemented more widely--educating parents to read, creating an environment where children will want to learn and halting what is becoming a legacy of illiteracy in families.

Intergenerational Approach

“The latest research shows that if you really want to break the cycle of illiteracy you have to bring the parent and the child in together,” Abrahamson said. “The beauty of family programs is that instead of isolating the child in day care while the parent goes to a literacy program, involving the teachers, parent and child together can multiply the effect of the learning process. The parent often has a new understanding of what goes on in the classroom and the interest and support of the parent is often what the child needs to keep going when the going gets tough.”

The foundation has approximately $1 million in pledges and plans to publish a book that will describe successful programs. So far it is staffed and run completely by volunteers, most of whom live in other cities. The subject of whether a volunteer effort will be enough to solve the problem is brushed aside by those involved with Mrs. Bush, who has made it clear she will not lobby Congress or her husband for federal programs that might address the issue.

Existing adult education programs have a high dropout rate, said another board member, executive director Benita Somerfield. The goal of the foundation is to make existing programs work better, rather than fund new ones.


“We’re not talking about a new federal program,” Abrahamson said. “We’re talking about addition of an intergenerational component to existing programs.”