Detroit’s literacy problem: One who persisted

In February seven years ago, I wrote about a young woman who graduated from a Detroit high school without being able to read. As I see new stories about high school graduates who are functionally illiterate, it is clear the problem with adult literacy in Detroit – and other cities across the country – continues. It is why I work so hard to find ways for adults, especially parents, to learn to read. Parent literacy is an early childhood education issue.

Originally published 2/5/10 in the Detroit Free Press

Detroit teen graduated high school without being able to read

Amiya Olden, 22, graduated from Denby High School unable to read. She enrolled in literacy classes and now can read her diploma.
REGINA H. BOONE/Detroit Free Press

Amiya Olden remembers well the day she graduated from Denby High. She handed her diploma to her mother, Karen Olden, who read it to her.

“Then when someone asked me to read it, I could remember the things that she read, and I knew what I had to say,” recalled Amiya Olden, now 22.

Amiya could not read her own diploma.

But don’t feel sorry for her. Two summers ago, she took charge of her life when she walked into ProLiteracy Detroit in Midtown and signed up to improve her reading. Nineteen months ago, she was reading at a second-grade level; now she reads at a fifth-grade level. And she has no intention of stopping. It’s the first time Amiya Olden has loved learning.

“Back in elementary and middle school, in class, I would just be sitting there,” she said. “I’d just close the book or put it under the desk. I wouldn’t even try. I didn’t have a lot of confidence and a lot of motivation, someone to tell me: ‘You can!’ ”

She said she didn’t want to bother her mother, who encouraged her to keep trying but had no idea how bad her reading was. So she suffered alone.

After years of being promoted without understanding her classes, she learned to cope, to hide the problem.

And, every year, she got promoted.

Amiya Olden could have been a poster child for a reading crisis that affects nearly 2 million Michigan residents older than 16: They read below a sixth-grade level, sometimes way below, which makes it difficult to function, to find jobs and to improve their lives. A study released last year by the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth found that a stunning one out of three working-age Michigan adults don’t have the reading skills to get a family-sustaining job, that an estimated 44% read below a sixth-grade level and that 60% of students entering community colleges require remedial classes before they can start post-secondary work.

Amiya Olden, like many students in schools across Michigan, suffered a kind of child abuse that the state Legislature not only allows but supports: social promotion.

But Olden is nobody’s victim. Instead, she’s a shining example of what is possible in Michigan if we stop fighting a reality that results from years of residents earning prosperity in jobs that didn’t require high reading levels.

She changed her life by reaching a point where she’d had enough.

“I couldn’t get through a book without struggling,” she said. “I would go (to the movies) with my friends, and they’d pick, and I’d just go see that. I would always go with somebody, my friends or my cousin.

“When we would go out to restaurants with my aunts, and that’s when I really would get upset. I would see words on the menu, names of food, and most of them were things I couldn’t say it and read. I couldn’t even go to a restaurant and read a menu! That’s what made me get into this program. I really wanted to change that.”

Unfortunately, with an estimated 300,000 Detroiters who read below a sixth-grade level, ProLiteracy only has capacity to help only 600 at a time and has more than that number now on its waiting list.

Olden now splits her days between her classes at ProLiteracy and the library, where she checks out books and reads them. She said she hopes her improved reading skills will help her find a good job.

“It feels great because I like to read now. I can read books! I don’t stumble. It doesn’t take forever to get through a book. It feels good to be able to read something and know what I’m reading and understand it. I like it,” she said with a giggle.

And she has advice for other Detroiters, other Michiganders, who have trouble reading.

“Don’t give up on it,” she said. “Even though it can be challenging and you might get frustrated sometimes, practice does help. If you really want to be able to go somewhere, go out to a restaurant and you have to read signs and things like that, you want to know what you want to eat and where you want to go …

“If you want to succeed in life and grow, you have to read. More important, you have to feel confident that you can.”

Olden recently went to the movies with friends.

“It felt good to do that. I went to see ‘Avatar.’ And I picked it,” she said, laughing proudly.

Olden couldn’t recall a favorite teacher, but she has a mentor, Georgia Alexander, the literacy assistant who has tutored her for 19 months. Alexander recalled the timid, withdrawn young woman who walked in two Julys ago.

“I had to pull the words out of her,” Alexander said. “Her mother brought her in. … But she opened up after two visits. She basically can work on her own now. She was withdrawn, but now – Oh boy! – she laughs and speaks and talks. And she can take the bus here.”

Back at her east-side home, Amiya Olden keeps her high school diploma on a little shelf in her bedroom.

She can read it now.

“It means more now because now I can look at it and be proud of it and know that I accomplished something really good. It makes me feel good … that I can read it and be proud that I got it.”

Follow Rochelle on Twitter @rochelleriley. To help with the mission to improve adult literacy, visit