Rose Parker didn’t think education was important. So when she got married at 16 years old, she dropped out of school.
“I didn’t have no children at the time,” said Parker, 60, of Copperas Cove. “I just dropped out and never tried to go back.”
Although her husband constantly encouraged her to go back to school, she kept putting it off — until this year when she enrolled in Central Texas College’s free GED class. During her initial test, Parker said she had a reading level of a first-grader.
“I realize now that ... education is important. It’s something that we need. I dropped out early and I felt like I missed out on something (by) dropping out of school,” Parker said during a March 5 class at the Goodwill Learning Center in Killeen. “Finally I made up my mind that I wanted to go back for myself and to leave a legacy for my children and grandchildren. ... I just felt like I need to do it, just to set a goal for myself and make myself proud of me and make my kids proud of me.”
When she started attending the classes, Parker was one of thousands of adults in Bell and Coryell counties who are considered “illiterate” by some measures; she could read but at a low level. While there are very few adults who cannot read at all, more than one in 10 adults in both counties who lack prose literacy skills, according to one study.
Gauging just how many Bell County residents are considered “illiterate” is a challenge. The most up-to-date statistics come from the Texas Center for Advancement of Literacy and Learning.
According to information gathered in 2009 by the center from the National Center for Education Statistics, Bell County has a 13 percent adult illiteracy rate.
The data, which is the most recent available, stated Texas had an average illiteracy rate of 19 percent, with the highest rates reported in counties along the border with Mexico. The Coryell County illiteracy rate was 14 percent, which matches the nationwide rate, according to a 2003 study by the Department of Education.
“Texas has not invested in those studies,” said Harriet Vardiman Smith, the Texas Center for Advancement of Literacy and Learning’s director. “Nobody has put the funds into looking at our state on a county level.”
The data measures adults who are considered “basic prose literate,” which means reading materials arranged in sentences and paragraphs. Adults who lack basic prose literacy skills can range from being unable to read and understand any written information to being able only to locate easily identifiable information.
At a state level, the need to provide adult literacy and basic education classes continues to grow with the state’s increasing population. According to a 2010 report by the Texas Workforce Investment Council, of the 3.8 million Texans who need the services of an adult education program, only about 100,000 are being served.
Those include illiterate adults, a group that includes everyone from high school dropouts to those learning English as a second language.
The profile of people in need of such services is similar in Bell County, said Don Stiles, director for the nonprofit Temple Literacy Council.
“Most of them are what we call functionally illiterate, which means they read at a low level and might have a hard time reading something like a newspaper, job application or prescription label,” Stiles said.
As the only literacy council in Bell County, the small Temple organization offers one-on-one tutoring services for adults, and refers them to basic education and GED programs at Temple College and Central Texas College.
While the council serves adults from all over the county, Stiles said because of its size and location, many of those it helps are in the eastern part of the county.
“There’s an unmet need here,” Stiles said, which means bigger challenges for illiterate adults, specifically those who don’t have the literacy skills to pass a GED exam.
The issue not only impacts those struggling with limited or no basic literacy skills, but the county as a whole.
“A lot of time those people have to rely on public assistance, public housing, indigent medical care,” Stiles said. “If they are able to read and write better, they could have a chance to get a better job and be more self-sufficient.”
Stiles also noted that literacy, or lack thereof, has an effect on the education system and future generations of Bell County children. If adults can’t read, they can’t “help with their kids’ homework, then it can impact a child’s performance at school.”
Melinda Montoya, a GED instructor at Central Texas College, works one on one with students during the class, which is typically offered twice a week in three-hour blocks. Montoya said she’ll see students range from first-grade reading, writing and math levels to students who just need a refresher before getting their high school diploma equivalency.
Since skill levels vary, students work individually to read, write and solve problems during the class.
“A lot of times, it’s self-paced and I’ll just kind of be available to them for whatever they need me for at that point and time,” she said. “It’s just a great opportunity for them. Especially because I worked at the high school for a while and I see there’s just sometimes when that setting is not conducive for them; sometimes this is the best alternative for them.”
GED provides opportunities
Calleigh Floyd dropped out of high school when she was in 10th grade.
“I was just young and didn’t care enough,” said Floyd, 22, of Killeen. She currently works at a Sonic and although she’s started various job training programs, she never followed through. Now, with two daughters to support, she’s determined to get her GED.
After attending the class for about two months, Floyd is almost ready to take her high school equivalency exam and eventually wants to go to college.
“I have (a few) more classes and then I’ll be done,” she said. “After that, I just don’t know what I want to go to school for yet.”
While she’s deciding, Floyd plans to get a trade certification in medical coding and billing to start working to support her family.
As for Parker, since enrolling in the GED course, the 60-year-old said she notices a difference in her literacy skills and her test scores show it. She said she’s now at a fifth-grade reading level.
“I was so proud,” she said. “I told my husband and my kids and they were really happy for me, too.”
Contact Chris McGuinness at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7568. Follow him on Twitter at ChrismKDH.