When 64-year-old Carl Plessala first moved to Mississippi seven years ago, he wanted to start a new life.
He stumbled upon a pamphlet that advertised classes at a community college. The idea intrigued him, but there was one problem: He was among the thousands of Mississippi adults who couldn’t read or write.
Plessala grew up in Louisiana, and he didn’t take school seriously. He called himself “a class clown,” which he said was a way to mask his low confidence in reading and writing skills. He entered the workforce and never learned to read or write.
“I thought I didn’t need much education because school was boring and riding tractors was fun until I got older,” he said. “Then, I realized riding tractors was a whole lotta work.”
So after he moved to Mississippi, he enrolled in a program at Hope Adult Learning in Harrison County and was matched with a tutor there. After three years in the program, Plessala’s initial 3rd or 4th grade reading level rose to a 10th grade level.
Today, Plessala says that learning how to read made him “feel like somebody,” and he plans to share his story with churches and other organizations.
There are many similar stories in Mississippi, where 16% of the adult population lacked proficient reading and writing skills in 2003, according to the National Center for Education for Statistics. That year is the last time conclusive data on the state’s literacy rate was collected, though more recent studies and interviews with experts across the state indicate not much has changed. By all measures, Mississippi’s adult literacy rate is among the lowest in America.
Advocates who spoke with Mississippi Today say several factors perpetuate the state’s adult literacy problem, including generational poverty, incarceration rates, trauma and lack of funding for educational programs.
“We’ve kind of put adult education on the back-burner because early childhood education has taken the forefront,” said Beth John, a Hope Adult Learning tutor who currently works with Plessala. “So while those little babies are starting to read, we shouldn’t forget about the population of adults who can’t read.”
Mississippi Today spoke with several advocates and educators working to curb adult illiteracy in the state. Here’s what they had to say.
Donna Daulton, the executive director of Hope Adult Learning in Harrison County who also worked with Plessala, provided a snapshot of a typical literacy rate amongst adult learners who enter the program.
“Most of the students that come to us are functioning at a (low-grade) level,” Daulton said. “Even though I had a little bit of training in adult literacy and years of experience which set me up well to teaching, I still didn’t understand the role dyslexia, poor oral language skills, poverty, and being an adult who couldn’t read impacted our learners nor did I have the tools to address these issues.”
One prevailing issue Daulton shared through common narratives like “Mama couldn’t read” or “Mama had a baby, and I had to drop out of school” conveyed the parabolic nature of poverty and inadequate access to education and their firm grip on Mississippi.
Mississippi’s poverty rate is 19.6%, the highest in the nation. This illustrates the lack of access to education where less than a third of the state’s adult population holds a bachelor’s degree.
With generational poverty continuing to cycle, adult learners who are not a part of adult learning programs engage less with their community and experience difficulty in acquiring jobs, maintaining personal well-being and stability.
Understanding the impact of low literacy among adults, Daulton provides an even more intimate portrayal of low literacy’s effect on the day-to-day experiences in an adult learner’s life.
“Mississippi does not seem to recognize that there are adults who struggle with basic reading skills,” Daulton said. “That there are people who can’t read road signs, prescription labels, forms such as medical, employment, or instructional workplace documents, notices from their child’s school or even their mail.”
Another factor at play, according to advocates, is the state’s sky-high incarceration rate. Mississippi has the second highest imprisonment rate in the country, and many formerly incarcerated people experience difficulty finding employment.
Familiar with prison educational services and its need for improvement, Larry Perry has worked at New Way, a six-month program based in Hinds County designed to give incarcerated people soft-skills training in work ethics, communication skills, reading and writing skills. Perry says complex factors of generational poverty, dysfunctional homes, and embarrassment that is intricately connected to adult literacy.
““You’re not just dealing with adult literacy, so you have to focus on all of the other factors tied to adult literacy as well,” Perry said. “They (adult learners) want to do better, but at the same time they lack the opportunity. They enter entry-level jobs that won’t lead down a path of success.”
Perry attested to initial success with New Way, but he acknowledges funding challenges and that the program is “always one step away from being closed.”
Despite the challenges of limited funding as a non-profit organization, Perry says the presence of programs like New Way is vital to combat adult literacy’s reach among Mississippi’s adult population.
“I believe in humanity because somebody has to do something to help these people,” Perry said.
Cindy Heimbach, the volunteer state literacy missions coordinator at the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board’s Litearcy Missions Ministry, provides reading strategies to English Speaking Learners (ESL) and loves to help people.
“I felt like teaching adults to read was what I was called to do,” Heimbach said.
The Mississippi Baptist Convention Board’s Literacy Missions Ministry provides a unique approach to adult literacy, providing training to church volunteers in three core areas: teaching English to non-native speakers, adult reading and writing, and tutoring children and youth.
In an interview with Mississippi Today, Heimbach described the daily limitations adult learners face in their lives, from not being able to run a business to an inability to read prescription labels. But Heimbach also highlighted another aspect of adult literacy that is not mentioned extensively: low literacy among middle class adults.
“People don’t wear it on their sleeves that they can’t read or that they have low literacy levels,” Heimbach said after telling a story where she encountered a middle-aged man who could not read even though he was a well-known pillar of his community.
Even though Heimbach may view poverty’s correlation to adult literacy differently than her peers in adult education, she does agree more involvement could improve adult literacy.
“I would love to see churches get more involved and help people in the community,” she said.
Sandy Crist, assistant executive director of workforce, career, and technical adult education at the Mississippi Community College Board, believes that more awareness about adult literacy is needed in the state.
“One of the hardest things we have is getting our message across to people, so that they know what options they have,” Crist said. “People don’t read newspapers a whole lot anymore, and we’re not on TV, so it’s very hard to reach that audience that needs us most.”
Seven years ago, adult education officially became part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which provides federal loans for adult education.
The Office of Adult Education at the Mississippi Community College Board receives approximately $9.5 million a year from the state and federal government to provide classes, training, and other services that support adult education.
Modeling other states’ approach to adult education, Crist explained that the GED, the HiSET, and TASC exams function like subject-matter assessments in which there are core subject areas like reading & writing, math, social studies, language arts, etc.; however, the Competency-Based High School Equivalency Option developed for students who need extra assistance in order to pass exams like HiSET and others.
“This is not the easy way out, but it’s ideal for students who just can’t get that one last exam,” said Beth Little, the state director of adult education and high school equivalency at MCCB.
The MCCB uses data that pertains to adult literacy and co-partnered with other organizations to create the MIBEST program, which is focused on providing economic mobility in the workforce for Mississippians who did not complete a traditional high school degree or are in low-wage jobs.
“The plan for adult ed was great because it recognized that we’re serving the same clients,” Crist said. “The same clients receiving SNAP benefits or Medicaid benefits depending on their level of income and poverty or other conditions and issues. We’re all serving the same students, but we weren’t all on the same page with communicating, and some of those services were being duplicated.”
Further unpacking adult literacy’s complexity, Crist also explained that the Office of Adult Education assists adult learners with other needs like paying light bills, providing transportation to classes, and providing support and education for drug addiction — factors that tend to inhibit an adult learner’s educational success.
Little also acknowledged that Mississippi has a cycle of poverty and incarceration that her programs aim to break, but Crist also described a recurring issue with adult learners that is not so visible: trauma.
“A lot of our kids have experienced trauma, and that’s one thing we’ve done differently in the past year is training our instructors on recognizing trauma like mental health issues with our students because they come with more than just the lack of a diploma. They come with so many other barriers,” Crist said.