PASCAGOULA, Miss. — Rosie Corn barely remembers the few years she spent in school before her mother pulled her out. It was the mid-1940s, and she was only through the first half of fifth grade. While her father worked on the family farm and her mother served food in a local hospital’s cafeteria, Corn spent her days cooking meals for her four younger siblings and washing clothes for white families in her hometown of Forest, Miss., just east of Jackson.
The 79-year-old, now a resident of coastal Pascagoula, is trying to make up for years of lost education. It’s taken her more than a quarter-century—interrupted by health problems, jobs and family commitments—to get to a second-grade reading level. She has yet to read a chapter book and will never have a driver’s license. Up until a few months ago, Corn couldn’t read the labels on the clothes she was buying.
In the largely poor and rural state of Mississippi—which has historically struggled with high rates of poverty and lagging test scores—this is a common narrative for many adults. Nearly seven percent of adults in the state have less than a ninth-grade education, which is two percentage points above the national average. As of 2003, the most recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, at least 15 percent of adults in Mississippi were found to be illiterate, with rates soaring as high as 30 percent in some of the most impoverished and rural counties. Nationwide, 14 percent of adults can’t read or write basic words—a figure that has held steady since the early 1990s.
Despite the discouraging numbers, Mississippi has improved since the first Adult Literacy Survey was given in 1992, when the state had a smaller total population yet 25 percent of adults were found to be illiterate. “We have made a lot of progress in Mississippi, both racially and educationally,” said Andy Mullins, chief of staff to the chancellor at the University of Mississippi. “We’ve had the deepest, darkest hole to climb out of, of any state in the nation,” he added. “We’ve probably made more progress than any state in the nation, based on how far we’ve had to come.”
The not-so-distant past
In Mississippi, decades of racism and segregation have plagued a public school system that many argue is still inherently separate and unequal. As recently as 1951, there were still more than 1,400 one-room schoolhouses in the state, almost all for black students, where black teachers juggled multiple grade-levels for a fraction of what white teachers were paid. Federal orders for schools to integrate made no difference, as many whites fled to newly created private schools, often referred to as “segregation academies,” that maintained a tense separation of the races. School attendance wasn’t even mandatory in the state until 1982, the year then-Gov. William Winter signed the state’s Education Reform Act.
“There was just no emphasis on education,” said Mullins, who worked for Winter. Mullins said that for many years, schools were open when cotton was not being planted or chopped, meaning many black students often had school years lasting just four months. “We had 150 years of slavery, and 150 years of second-class citizenship,” he said. “We refused to educate about 50 percent of our population because we wanted to keep them in a servant’s role.”
For Corn, as for many illiterate adults in the state, the odds of receiving a quality education haven’t improved much. Ambitious efforts have been made in the past. In 1990, then-Gov. Ray Mabus proposed an initiative to combat adult illiteracy, proposing $13.5 million in state funds to start a series of literacy programs over the next three years. The proposal was so promising that The Atlantic Monthly published an article titled “Mississippi: Literate at Last,” claiming—unfortunately, not prophetically— that the new adult literacy programs “will be studied as models and inspiration elsewhere.” Those programs went unfunded.
The present, the future
One of the greatest recent developments in Mississippi is the increasing availability of and enrollment in adult basic education classes run by the state’s Community College Board, which has been in charge of planning and paying for state-funded adult education since the Department of Education handed that task over in 1992. While there are hundreds of classes across Mississippi, they are mostly aimed at individuals reading between a fourth- and seventh-grade level, said Eloise Richardson, director of adult education for the Community College Board. “The people that are on the lowest level are the hardest to get to come,” she added.
Last year, only about 10 percent of Mississippi adults who dropped out of school before ninth grade were served by basic education classes at a community college. The least-educated “really need more one-on-one volunteer tutoring,” Richardson said. “We don’t have the dollars for it. The word ‘volunteer’ is just unheard of now.”
The classes are funded by a mix of state and federal dollars, and run by community colleges and public schools across Mississippi, but even as enrollment in adult basic education classes has slightly increased, funding for the Community College Board has decreased over the past year.
For adults like Corn, who can’t read at a high enough level to benefit from a community college class, the only other help often comes through nonprofits like the Jackson County Literacy Council in Pascagoula. Run out of a modest brick building tucked away next to the town’s prison, the council offers adult literacy classes for adults at all levels. But getting to such classes can be a challenge, especially if individuals lack a driver’s license and live in a rural part of the state with few public-transportation options.
Corn, who relies on a city bus to get her to tutoring twice a week, is typical of students who come to the literacy center looking for help, according to the council’s director, Claire Albright. She said that many older adults in the area have found themselves alone after their spouses die and children leave. “They get mail that they can’t read. They can’t pick up a newspaper,” Albright said on a recent weekday as she observed Corn attempting to complete a reading exercise on a computer. “They have no personal life, because they have to depend upon others.”
The Jackson County Literacy Council managed to help nearly 140 adults in 2012, with only nine volunteer tutors and a $30,000 budget. Albright says that finding dedicated tutors is a challenge, which forces her to turn away dozens of adults looking for help each year. Some of these adults are trying to earn their GEDs—a certificate of high school equivalency—but they’re not yet at the fourth- to eighth-grade reading level needed to test into a GED program. Others are new to the country and learning English for the first time.
“We are strictly goal-oriented,” Albright said. “If you stay with me, I will do everything I can to help you.”
A new start
When Eddie Joseph came to Pascagoula by way of Texas after Hurricane Katrina, he left behind a life of instability and academic failure. The 39-year-old, who grew up in the ninth ward of New Orleans, arrived in Mississippi nine months after his neighborhood was destroyed in the storm. By then, he’d decided it was finally time to become literate. On a recent winter evening inside the Jackson County Literacy Council, Joseph recalled his years as a special-education student in some of New Orleans’ worst public schools. “I was afraid to ask” for help, he admitted, looking down at the desk in front of him. “If you tell a person that you cannot read, they’re going to laugh at you, you know, criticize you.”
For 15 years in New Orleans, Joseph bounced from job to job, able to apply only for positions that had short and easy applications. As a child, he says he wanted to be a police officer or doctor, but his inability to read stopped him from pursuing those dreams. Instead, he has worked minimum-wage jobs in private security and grounds-keeping. For work that required him to read, he did his best to learn new words and conceal his illiteracy from coworkers. “Certain people have their own way of hiding,” Joseph said. “I just kept on going.”
An inability to get and keep jobs is one of the biggest challenges and most dire consequences of adult illiteracy. Each year, efforts to improve adult literacy cost the U.S. government about $500 million for basic-skills classes that reach 3 million adults across the country—which is only about 10 percent of the adults in the country who can’t read. By building up skills in reading and math, these programs aim to get adults into the workforce. A 2010 study by the National Institute for Literacy found that an increase in literacy skills would lead to an increase in employment and earnings. A lack of education has long been tied to lower income; nationwide, high-school dropouts only make about 65 percent of what high-school graduates earn.
It is an issue that can trickle down to younger generations, says Eloise Richardson. “If the parents are not educated, then they’re not going to push their children to remain in school,” she said.
Whether it’s the result of poverty, parental influence, or some combination of both, many schools across the state—especially in the most impoverished areas—are still failing to prepare students for success after graduation. Just 62 percent of Mississippi students complete high school within four years, and many of those who do graduate are underprepared for college or careers. In the 2010-11 school year, only 57 percent of students in the state were deemed proficient by the state’s high school English test. And for those who attempt to find work, there’s little cause for hope: Mississippi leads the nation with the highest unemployment rate among young adults.
Experts say the lack of a literate workforce has stunted Mississippi’s economy. Although several companies have opened factories in the state over the last decade, Richardson of the Community College Board said that well-educated adults are needed to encourage more economic growth. “We have automotive companies that want to come into our state,” she said. “The first thing they want to find out is, ‘what kind of skill does your workforce have?’ ”
For an under-educated adult, getting a job may be just the first step on a ladder of other challenges. Claire Albright said that the biggest proportion of students at her center are middle-aged men who can’t read well enough to pass the health and safety test required to work in manufacturing, which dominates southern Mississippi’s economy; in Pascagoula, nearly 25 percent of employed adults work in the industry.
For those who do get help, Albright said the tutoring can work. After a year and a half, Eddie Joseph was reading well enough to start a GED course. He now has a driver’s license and a well-paid job with a local school system. And Rosie Corn—who has started from square one after a recent stroke—is now able to go to the bank alone and can read her mail without help. Her ultimate goal, she says, is to be able to write a letter to her brother and read her Bible.
“She told me, ‘I became a human here,’ ” Albright said, referring to Corn. “And I thought, ‘That’s right.’ She became a human, because now she can function on her own.”
This story also appeared in the Biloxi Sun Herald on March 9, 2013.