New Orleans, LA – Education reform has been in the spotlight since Hurricane Katrina. But what about those who came before? What happens to the many thousands of New Orleanians who left school in generations past without an adequate education?
New Orleans native JoAnn Alexander can tell you. She dropped out of school in the ninth grade. She had trouble reading, and trouble with math too. It didn't seem to matter much at the time, but JoAnn, now 44, explains that the consequences have loomed over her life ever since.
"It was just like a brick wall. When people realized you don't have the high school diploma, they don't give you that opportunity, and it's like you're at a standstill. You can't move, you can't move up. You might get jobs, different jobs, but it won't be jobs with a two figure on it. It'll be like a five dollar or seven dollar job, it won't be a 15 on up job."
JoAnn works as a certified nursing assistant. She watched, with growing frustration, as younger and less-experienced co-workers landed promotions that were beyond her reach. She yearned to make a change. Her daughter Keesha, now 12, provided the final push.
"To help myself and my little girl to actually get up in life, to make it and know how to actually survive in this society and be a productive citizen. I don't want to stay on welfare. I want to, you know, help my little girl with algebra. I want to be able when my child comes home and help her with her homework. I want to be able to say, hey I put food on the table, don't worry about anything, mama can pay the rent, and just life period, I want to be able to do that."
She enrolled in an adult education program, and is now working towards a GED. She found help through a program supported by the Literacy Alliance of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit that ties together area organizations working on literacy and adult learning.
Only half of these organizations reopened after Hurricane Katrina, a situation Literacy Alliance director Rachel Nicolosi blames primarily on funding cuts. She estimates current programs meet just five percent of local need, and all now have waiting lists for people seeking help.
This spring, state lawmakers will consider legislation to change the management of adult education funding, and the Literacy Alliance hopes the debate will be a chance to demonstrate how a better-educated adult population can help Louisiana's broader goals, including economic development, crime reduction and, perhaps most of all, childhood education. Rachel Nicolosi explains.
"You can't just ignore a whole generation just because they dropped out, because their kids are in school now, and they need to be able to support their children in school. If they don't have the skills that they need then they can't help them. I mean you can put your money in the K-12 system, but if you're not supporting the adults and the parents you're not getting the best bang for your buck."
"The parent is a child's first teacher, and whether they come to school literacy ready depends a whole lot on the educational level of the parent."
JoAnn Alexander has been at her adult learning studies for two years now, and though it's been difficult to balance work, parenting and classes, she says the experience has been worth every effort.
"I feel very confident, that's what I'm saying. It feels real good to be on a roll, of knowing that I have a goal, that I really want to accomplish, and when I accomplish that I'll feel that I'm living again. You know, that I'm not just in the land of the dead."