CLEVELAND — In her late 60s, an experience in the church led Barbara Driscoll to a new life chapter. The mother of 6 said her participation during bible study was limited by her reading skills.
“Everybody in church was doing a verse,” she recalled. “And I asked the pastor if I could. He said, ‘Yeah.’ As I started to read, I broke down and started crying because I couldn’t.”
Driscoll explained she often missed school while growing up in the South because working in the fields was prioritized over going to class. When she moved to Cleveland at age 13, she was pregnant and unable to focus on academics. Her formal education ended several months into the eighth grade.
A fellow churchgoer at Driscoll’s bible study in 2019 directed her to Seeds of Literacy. The Cleveland-based nonprofit organization provides free basic education, GED courses and career readiness training for adults.
“They're very intelligent. They have so much promise and potential, hopes and dreams like everybody else, but they just didn't crack the code for reading,” said Seeds of Literacy Vice President of Programming Dr. Carmine Stewart.
She explained many of the organization’s students are adults who experienced trauma or other barriers that prevented them from receiving a full education. Others may have graduated high school, but still have low literacy skills.
“We also get students who will tell us that they were just put in special education classes, and never moved from that, and treated as though they had these cognitive deficits that they really didn't have,” Stewart said. “They didn't have cognitive deficits, they had reading skills deficits.”
Studies show nearly two-thirds of adults living in Cleveland are functionally illiterate. The figure is not a reflection of intelligence, but rather a measurement of reading, numeracy, comprehension and analytical skills.
According to data initially commissioned by the Literacy Commission of Greater Cleveland in 2004, the literacy of 66 percent of Cleveland’s adult population is below a fourth grade level.
The lack of fundamental skills makes it difficult to read and comprehend everything from mail to medication to job applications.
“A bible, a book or coming down the street [and] reading a street sign, you never know who’s going to ask you to read,” said student Deacon Andre Westbrook of the challenges he faced prior to classes at Seeds of Literacy.
Dr. Stewart explained poverty and illiteracy are intertwined. The percentage of adults without a high school diploma who live in poverty is twice that of those who have a high school diploma. Adults without a high school diploma earn on average 42 percent less than those with a diploma.
Some of Cleveland’s poorest neighborhoods, including Mt. Pleasant, where Seeds of Literacy has a location, have illiteracy rates topping 90%.
“It impacts not just your ability to earn money, but their ability to make really good decisions with the money that they do earn because they just don't have access to that information in terms of reading as well as in math,” Dr. Stewart said.
The organization has seen success in bringing adults up to speed later in life. It has students ranging in age from 18-90. It served more than 1,100 adults in 2021 and boasts a 75% GED test pass rate.
When the courses pivoted to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Seeds of Literacy became one of the few basic adult education services available remotely. The accessibility and one-on-one tutoring approach have found broad appeal across the country.
“I'm reading now. I'm doing things now that I've never done before,” said student Ellen Snowden, who lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia and attends virtual classes.
Students told News 5 improving their literacy has been empowering and opened up new opportunities. Westbrook plans to get his GED. Driscoll wants to learn computers next.
Both said improving their literacy skills has changed their lives for the better.
“Sometimes I want to give up. I do. I’ll be like, ‘I’m not going. I don’t want to go.’ But then I’ll think back [and say], ‘Look how far you’ve come,’” Driscoll said.