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No longer a statistic: Learning to read later in life

Tuesday - 6/24/2014, 6:41am  ET

Washington Literacy Center graduate Tony Adams hugs Terry Algire and Kenisha Boone after finishing a one-year adult literacy program. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
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WASHINGTON -- "Today is one of the greatest days of my life; today is one of my greatest milestones."

Sterling Holton, 34, stood at a podium and addressed a small crowd on Monday at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Northwest D.C. He was one of eight graduates of the Washington Literacy Center's summer graduation ceremony.

"From [when I started the program], my confidence grew, and I knew somebody really cared," Holton says. "Now, I'll be taking one day at a time."

One year ago, Holton was one of the roughly 48 million adults in the U.S., and 90,000 adults in D.C., to read below a fifth-grade level. That is no longer the case.

Holton was told he needed to improve his reading skills while working toward his GED. He contacted the Washington Literacy Center, a nonprofit organization that works to teach and improve literacy levels among District adults, and after meeting the staff and observing a class, he signed up for the program.

"And it was all uphill from there," he says.

Gaining Confidence and Skills Later in Life

Terry Algire, executive director of the Washington Literacy Center, says the organization teaches about 100 adults to read each year. Algire says about 10 percent of the students that come to WLC have a high school diploma; 30 to 35 percent completed 10 to 12 years of school.

"For the majority of them, they didn't drop out; they hung in there," Algire says. "In those early years, when you're learning the process of reading, it didn't click for them, so then for the remaining years, they were constantly behind, and the gap continued to grow."

Classes, which meet four times a week for two hours, are taught using the Wilson Reading System, which embraces a multi-sensory approach to decoding words.

Algire says students who complete the programs at WLC leave with improved reading skills, but more importantly, they leave with "a great deal of confidence."

They are able to read job applications, school forms, medical paperwork, prescription information, rental applications and food labels.

"Once you start to read, you start to be able to engage in the world in which you live," Algire says.

Confidence is one thing Elvis Zaldivar, 34, says he's gained. Before starting literacy-improvement classes, he says he felt ashamed about not being able to read.

"I always had a problem reading and writing, and that's depressing," Zaldivar says. "You try to read a newspaper or a book and it takes you 30 minutes just to read one sentence. You think something is wrong with you mentally, or you're slow. You walk into a room and [nobody] knows anything about you, but subconsciously, you have that in the back of your mind that they know. And you know, everybody's not kind. They will taunt you, make fun of you."

Now, Zaldivar routinely enjoys scanning The Washington Post and cracking open a book. His next goal is to get his GED.

"I feel much more comfortable now. I know that nothing's wrong with me, mentally, because I picked this up," he says. "The only thing I'm upset about is that I am 34 years old. I wish I could have done this 10 years earlier. I'm 100 percent sure if I did this 10 years earlier, I'd be in a way different position than where I am now."

Overcoming Obstacles and Setting New Goals

Struggling with reading is only one of the challenges students at WLC face. Many of them have jobs, family and other commitments that demand their attention.

"If you are the adult in a family, it's even harder for you to take the time out to get to a class -- to have the financial resources to get to a class," Algire says.

WLC graduate Holton says the hardest part of the program was "getting here and staying focused."

"We're grown; we've got bills and everything else to pay," says Holton, who has a 10-year-old daughter and another child on the way. "It's hard to say, I'm not going to work, I'm going to go to school.' I've got a family to take care of, so that was the biggest challenge of them all right there."

Holton credits his instructor, Adrienne Danforth, with helping him get to class each day. He says she would call him in the evening and in the morning to make sure he'd be present.

"She's one of the strongest women in my life, as well as one of the most positive people I have ever met," Holton says of Danforth. "She felt like a second mother to me."

Holton is now working in asbestos and lead removal, but hopes that by furthering his education, he can go to school for culinary arts or work with troubled youth.

"Because both of them would not be a job to me; it's something I love to do so hopefully that's where I will be going to next," he says.

Damien Boots, a 23-year-old graduate of the program, says he plans to complete a GED program and then find a job in the medical field.

"I really want to work in the hospital; there's so much to do in a hospital and people need a smile on their face when they're going through troubled times," he says.

One of the older graduates of the group, Tony Adams, says no matter what his next move is, he now knows he has the drive and the skills to accomplish anything in life.

"My confidence is through the roof," he says to the group. "I walk proudly now among society knowing that I can accomplish anything I put my mind to, because change is created by those whose imaginations are bigger than their circumstances."

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