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. Continue Reading