Literacy advocates kick off public awareness campaign

September 08, 1999

Michael MillerBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

Michael Miller was a 16-year-old high school dropout who lost custody of his son because he couldn't help him with his homework or teach him to read.

Recently, Miller got his GED. He regained custody of his son and is a student at Baltimore City Community College, where he has a 4.0 grade-point average.

"It doesn't matter where you start, it counts where you decide to finish," Miller, of Baltimore, told a group of about 150 business leaders at the Four Points Sheraton Wednesday morning.


Miller, who has been chosen to be a statewide spokesman for literacy, helped Washington County literacy advocates kick off a public awareness campaign.

It's time to confront the county's pervasive illiteracy problem, said Suzanne Hayes, chairwoman of the Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce.

Seventeen percent of adults in the county are at the lowest reading level.

That means they can't locate an intersection on a map or two pieces of information in a sports story. They can sign their names but can't fill out forms or add up the costs on order forms, she said.

A Hagerstown-area manufacturing plant that tests its employees found that 37 percent of its high school graduates weren't reading at a 10th-grade level, she said.

A worker who was hurt on the job couldn't be placed in a desk job because he could only read and write at a fourth-grade level, she said.

"This is holding all of us back. It is keeping every one of us from prospering in the region's economy as it should," Hayes said.

Literacy is becoming even more important in the work place as responsibility for quality and productivity is shifting from management to the shop floor, she said.

Literacy is also crucial to economic development efforts. More than location, potential employers want a trained work force, she said.

Hayes urged local businesses to provide training for employees. She encouraged community leaders to volunteer in the schools.

The ability to read is also fundamentally important to the self-esteem of children, she said.

"The toll of illiteracy is the loss of richness in the life you lead," she said.

Hayes compared illiteracy to using a computer that constantly displays incomprehensible error messages.

"How quickly anger leads to frustration. What if your whole day amounted to error messages that you can't comprehend," she said.

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