100,000 illiterate adults 

Big challenge for Indy Reads

Imagine a world in which people are constantly telling you what to do. That pretty well describes life for the more than 100,000 functionally illiterate adults in Marion County. As Travis DiNicola, the new head of Indy Reads, the city’s leading adult literacy program, put it, these are people who can’t address an envelope, read a prescription, order from a menu, check their children’s homework, fill out a job application or vote.

DiNicola was hired by Indy Reads at the end of last year. The 22-year-old organization was originally a service of the Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library, but the library decided to cut operational funding, while still providing office space for a dollar a year at the end of 2006. DiNicola’s job is to raise the funds necessary to not just keep Indy Reads going, but to grow its capacity.

“One thing I’ve found out is how well-respected Indy Reads is by the adult literacy community across the country,” DiNicola said. Over the years, Indy Reads has developed an effective methodology based on extensive tutor training, the careful matching of tutors to adult students and consistent follow-up.

DiNicola characterized the adult literacy situation in Indianapolis as “not a lot worse than most cities our size, but if you realize that one out of five adults can’t read a newspaper — that’s horrendous.”

It’s particularly troublesome in light of the mayor’s Community Crime Prevention Task Force’s recent recommendations for addressing crime in Indianapolis. In that report, the Task Force made a direct connection between low education attainment and criminal behavior. According to DiNicola, 85 percent of kids in juvenile detention have trouble reading; the same is true for 70 percent of the adult prison population.

But adult illiteracy affects the social fabric in other ways. “People who can’t read have more health issues,” DiNicola said. “They’re not as able to take care of themselves, to explain to doctors what ails them. The estimated cost of keeping someone healthy who’s illiterate is four times greater than what it is for someone who can read. A lot of people who are illiterate will go to the emergency room because they’ll fill out the paperwork for you there.”

Adults who are unable to fill out a job application have a negative pull on the local economy, DiNicola added, and illiterate parents are likely to pass the problems they had in school on to their kids. “One of the biggest predictors of whether a kid will succeed in school is do the parents read?”

Indy Reads is currently teaching 400 adults to read. The organization takes referrals through a program set up by Dollar General stores as well as through the public library system. But in order to take advantage of Indy Reads’ free services, adults must come forward themselves — they can’t be enrolled by a friend or family member. “I am astounded by the courage I have seen in our students,” DiNicola said. Most students are in their 30s and 40s. “There’s no question that most of the students who come to us are very, very bright people,” he added. “To be able to survive for 30 to 40 years in our culture without knowing how to read means you have to be a phenomenal actor. We have a number of students, though, who are so proud of what they’ve accomplished in tutoring that they want to tell the world about it.”

Typically, students will work with a tutor in two 90-minute sessions per week. Most students stay with the program for about 18 months, although there are a few students who have been involved with Indy Reads for as long as 10 years. Generally, it takes a year to progress a single grade level. In 2006, 20 percent of Indy Reads’ students gained two or more grade levels and 30 percent improved by one grade level.

Indy Reads’ volunteer tutors undergo a 15-hour training course. One of DiNicola’s goals is to raise additional funds so that Indy Reads can add more tutors — which means adding more students. In 2007, he hopes to increase the number of active tutors from 288 to 350.

Recently, DiNicola said, he got a phone call from a citizen who was irate because Indy Reads wasn’t doing more for children and teens. While DiNicola agreed that kids need all the educational assistance they can get, he stands by Indy Reads’ mission to serve adults. “We talk about kids being at risk all the time,” he said. “We’re dealing with adults who are at risk.”

To find out more about Indy Reads, go to www.indyreads.org or contact Travis DiNicola at tdinicola@indyreads.org.

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