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One Man's Crusade to Heal Illiteracy Ills

L.A. preacher coaxes students to overcome anger, confusion by teaching themselves to read

The Rev. Alfreddie Johnson says the problem with inner-city America is not the usual litany of woes: drugs, crime, gangs, teen-pregnancy, domestic abuse.

All of the above are deeply rooted in something far more fundamental, he says. In a word, illiteracy.

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"If you go into any American city and look into the eyes of young people, you will see anger and alienation," says this nondenominational preacher. "Why? They are surrounded by a wealth of opportunity in this country yet are convinced such opportunity is not for them. This is the result of illiteracy."

Mr. Johnson should know. He grew up in this Los Angeles-area inner city, which has the nation's third-lowest educational level, with a 40 percent school dropout rate. Joblessness is three times the national average (at 20 percent), and nearly half of those of high school age are considered "functionally illiterate" - unable to read a map or menu.

In the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which devastated this community, Johnson planted seeds to change that. Already active in the neighborhood with an eight-year-old outreach program for youths, he founded the Compton Literacy and Learning Project. A year later, it was named the World Literacy Crusade (WLC) and has since become so successful that chapters have been cloned in 30 other cities around the world.

The curriculum Johnson uses is a simple system from a controversial source. In the 1930s, L. Ron Hubbard, who later founded the Church of Scientology, designed a way to help potential readers of all ages overcome their own barriers to learning: He stressed that readers must know where, when, and how they become confused.

In the WLC program, students are urged to look up any unclear words in dictionaries before proceeding in schoolwork or reading. They are taught to backtrack to lesson areas where their comprehension derailed or attention waned, to continually monitor their own understanding, and to construct ideas and concepts in materials like clay so they may literally grasp them.

"The concepts are incredibly simple, which is partly why they are powerful and why they have been overlooked elsewhere," says Sandy Chapman, a 20-year reading specialist and curriculum writer in San Diego.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., and a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr.'s belief that individuals can make a difference in their communities, Johnson was led to the cause of literacy by a lifetime of church activism.

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"St. John said, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,' " says the preacher, in a clerical collar and jeans. "I always knew that the spirit of God was bound up in words. I knew there was power in words."

How it all began

He launched WLC in a local church hall, then expanded it to a small storefront for several years before moving recently to much larger offices in a warehouse next to a local school. Students there get one-on-one attention with trained tutors, sitting at large tables spread around the perimeter of several quiet rooms.

A volunteer staff of 20 to 40 tutors works with up to 70 students for six days a week. The program has graduated about 700 local youths in Compton during the past five years.

One of those, DeShawn Washington, entered the literacy project five years ago, reading at a second-grade level. Now he is studying to tutor at the center, reads at a college level, and is writing a book of poetry.

"When I came in I was really angry and frustrated because I thought I was stupid," says the young adult. "They taught me to calm down, to laugh, to take things at my own speed. It has opened up a whole world for me."

As a grass-roots, community-based project, WLC is ideally suited to diagnose root causes of illiteracy, understand the cultural motivations and resistances of students, and ensure long-term participation, experts say.

"The WLC is where the rubber meets the road in terms of solving illiteracy problems in America," says Carolyn Staley, deputy director of the National Institute for Literacy. "They have gone outside the box of conventional approaches to give people the skills which will help them continue to help themselves."

Indeed, tutors here urge students not only to search out and discover their own goals and interests, but also those of their schools and employers.

Students are also encouraged to master drills in communication, composure, and self-control that enable them to focus on education, ignoring the host of intrusions that are common in most classrooms. This ability to give students the tools to change their own lives - and through that, a sense of hope - is perhaps the major reason for WLC's success.

"It has been proven time and time again that hope is the key ingredient in overcoming the entrenched problem of illiteracy," says Bob Caswell, president of Laubach Literacy, a nonprofit educational corporation. "By focusing on this..., WLC has shown that once a student gets it, his literacy can ignite like a grass fire."

The costs of illiteracy in the US are high. The Washington Literacy Council says functionally illiterate adults cost $224 billion a year in welfare, crime, job incompetence, lost taxes, and remedial education. Moreover, more than 3 of 4 people on welfare are illiterate, as well as 85 percent of unwed mothers, and about 60 percent of inmates.

Saving more than dollars

But Johnson's mission is not just about saving dollars. Of his 700 graduates, only seven have been arrested and not one shot - compared with a rate of about 1 jailed or imprisoned per 7 in the black community at large in Compton.

"That's not a big statistic to most people, but in this community it is," says Johnson, noting that 40 local youths have been shot or killed in the past 30 days.

Yet the program is not without controversy. The educational writings of Mr. Hubbard, which form the foundation of the course, made national headlines this summer after a Los Angeles teacher applied to start a charter school that would use them as core curricula. Concern was expressed that such books might contain religious views, breaching the separation of church and state. But the state Department of Education review panel - and some experts - say the materials have no religious content.

Such questions are beside the point to Ronald Brown, a middle-aged man who stopped reading in second grade because he was told he had a learning disability. He came to the center six months ago and now reads at an eighth-grade level. "I always got kicked out of school when it came time to read 'cause I would start a fight rather than confront the situation," says Mr. Brown, adding that he eventually turned to drugs for escape and spent 13 years in prison.

Program instructors here say misdiagnosis of learning disabilities is a major problem. "When a student isn't getting something they are quick to pronounce some mysterious medical condition rather than realizing it's something the teacher has control over," says tutor Jeannie Dillard.

"Kids in these neighborhoods don't have 'attention deficits,' " adds Johnson. "They can play video games six straight hours, play sports all weekend, and chase down every dollar in a drug deal while drunk or high. Don't tell me they can't learn how to read."

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