An Unfinished Education

Three miles north of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., Shirley Ashley flips through a folder of certificates she’s received in her adult education class.

She points to the words, but has problems reading them.

When Shirley Ashley first came to Literacy Volunteers and Advocates she was reading at the kindergarten level. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

“I know that’s ‘Shirley Ashley,’” she says. She stops at one comment that says ‘Top Performer.’ “I know this is ‘top’ something. That means I’m doing good.”

The word ‘performer’ is still a jumble of letters that Ashley, at 55, hasn’t learned to decipher. Her face burns with memories of 50 years of asking her siblings for help.

“They would say ‘what’s wrong with you, you can’t read?’ I used to say, ‘Lord find me a school where I can learn from people that’s on my level. That won’t make fun of me.’”

Ashley is one of about 30 million people — approximately 15 percent of the adult population in the U.S. — who are at the low end of the literacy spectrum. They struggle to read a menu, a pay stub or a bus schedule. About 46 million people find it challenging to do basic math.

Living with illiteracy

Ashley was placed in classes for students with learning disabilities, but says she wasn’t learning anything. She felt as though teachers gave her a passing grade just to get her to the next level. In the seventh grade, after one teacher told her ‘whether you learn to read or not, I still get paid,’ Ashley decided to drop out.

To hide the fact she was illiterate, Ashley learned how to give her mother medicine, based on the colors on the bottles. She memorized Bible verses so no one at her church suspected she couldn’t read, and she limited her travel to a familiar route.

“I couldn’t read the name of the bus, but I learned that the left-hand side of the street would take me downtown and the right-hand side of the street was going to bring me back home,” she says.

Ashley couldn’t help her son with his homework; she could barely understand his report cards. She came up with a system based on letters of the alphabet. “I knew S stood for science, so I said OK he was a B minus. And I knew that R stood for reading, so OK, he got an A in reading.”

As Ashley tells her story, her shoulders slump. She’s seen those closest to her take advantage of her illiteracy, especially when it came to money.

“I would have to pay them, my family members, to come over to my house to do a money order,” she recalls. “Sometimes I’d give them $25, sometimes $30.”

A niece would fill out bank slips and withdraw money for her. But Ashley says when she called the bank to ask how much was taken out, she would discover more had been withdrawn than she had asked.

One step at a time

About eight years ago, someone on a bus told Ashley about Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, a nonprofit in Washington D.C. She has attended classes on and off since then. Ashley initially tested at the kindergarten level; now she’s reading at the second grade level. She also has learned practical skills like how to look for the word ‘sodium’ on food labels and how to write checks. These small victories are monumental.

“When my gas bill comes to my house, I’m learning how to read where it says, ‘pay by July 17.’ That makes me feel awesome.”

Ashley’s life’s dream is to write a soul food cookbook. The kitchen is where she feels most comfortable and confident.

“Put me in the kitchen and wow, I become brand new.” she says. “When I cook, there’s nothing left over.”

Difficulty with numbers

Ernest Robertson is Shirley Ashley’s classmate. He’s struggled with reading all his life, but it’s math that really trips him up.

Ernest Robertson, 58, struggles with math and always carries around a calculator. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

“You use numbers just about everywhere you go,” he says.

The 58-year-old recently started using a calculator. He pulls one out of his bag. “This is my best friend,” he says laughing. “I always have a calculator in the bag or in my pocket.”

Robertson dropped out of high school in Prince George’s County, Md. because he didn’t understand what was being taught. Since then, he’s struggled with math every day — from buying a Metro fare card to figuring out how much he could buy at the grocery store.

“I try to add stuff up as I buy it,” he says. “But that didn’t work.”

He was in awe of people who could handle money easily, such as bus drivers.

“They can tell how much five people need to pay,” he says. “I just wondered how did they do it?”

Relying on others

For 30 years, Robertson worked minimum wage jobs, washing cars and cleaning buildings. When the car dealership where he worked went out of business, Robertson started doing part-time yard work. He says no matter how many hours he worked, he only charged $20, because he didn’t know how to make change.

Robertson remembers vividly all the times he’s been cheated.

“It was difficult, plus it was embarrassing. Sometimes I go quiet. I just don’t say nothing. I would walk out. I didn’t know how to deal with it.”

— Ernest Robertson

“I think it’s one price, and it’s always something else,” he says. “I think people can tell when you don’t know how to handle money. They know how to get you.”

For years he would pretend he had forgotten his glasses and was having trouble seeing.

“I would say, ‘oh I left my glasses and I can’t see. I say, Could you just do it for me this time?’ Some people are nice, and some people will say ‘I can’t do it for you.’”

Robertson has the patient demeanor of someone who is used to waiting for help, and the humility of someone who’s used to having to ask for help.

He says certain experiences are difficult and embarrassing, for example when shopping: “I get kind of quiet when things didn’t go right and just leave the order there and I would walk out.”

Gaining math skills

Robertson’s math skills have improved through classes at Literacy Volunteers and Advocates, and he’s now at the fourth grade level. He’d like to increase his skills to a level where he can help his grandchildren with their homework. And he hopes it’ll help him at his current job where he lays tile floors.

“Measuring the floor and putting the right price on it, you need to know how much to charge them,” he says. “They know when you don’t know what you’re doing.”

Robertson says it would be “heaven” to be able to do a job from start to finish and figure out what he should be paid, on his own.

He and Shirley Ashley, like thousands of other adult learners, are slowly and painstakingly trying to fill in the gaps of their rudimentary schooling. It has been more than 40 years since they dropped out of school but the long shadow of their unfinished education still follows them every day.

Learning to speak English

Reading and math are challenging enough for many adult learners. But for millions of them, there’s an added struggle: not being able to speak English.

Ana Perez came to the U.S. after war broke out in El Salvador. She dropped one of her three jobs to study English at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

One of the students, Ana Perez, stopped going to school after the sixth grade in El Salvador when war broke out. Now, she’s trying to fill the gaps in her education while juggling everything else in her life. She’s embarrassed that her English isn’t perfect, so she sometimes resorts to speaking in her native Spanish when conversing with others.

When Perez moved to the U.S., she worked three jobs to support the two children she had to leave behind. She worked a full-time job in a beauty parlor from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then went to her second job, cleaning offices from 6 to 9 p.m. On weekends, she cleaned homes.

A steady trickle of tears rolls down her cheeks as she remembers those years.

Perez made $600 a week from her three jobs.

“When you do not speak the language, you have to take the jobs that pay very low,” she says. “You need to continue even if you are in pain… you have to continue working.”

There are nearly 23 million adults in the U.S. who speak what’s called “limited English.” Only 3 to 5 percent of them are being served in ESL classes nationwide. Perez was lucky enough to get into Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., which has 1,000 people on the waiting list.

Most of the students at this school are immigrants at the bottom rungs of society, working basic jobs and hoping English will help lift them out of poverty.

But going to school was a difficult decision for Perez because it meant giving up one of her jobs and having less money for her children’s education.

She takes two buses to school and has to juggle managing her house, work and studies. “I have a lot on my plate,” Perez says. “I have to study, I have a grandchild, I have a daughter, a husband. Everything adds up. I am responsible for the house, for my studies, for my work.”

Despite all of that, Perez is in class every day. “I try to never miss a day. A day of studying is sacred for me.”

Making sacrifices, juggling responsibilities

Jorge Delgado, the assistant principal at Carlos Rosario, says many of these adult students make “incredible sacrifices” to come to class. Forty percent have school-age children, and some, like Perez, send money home to support their families.

Carlos Rosario Public Charter School in Washington D.C. serves more than 2,000 adult learners from nearly 80 different countries. (Photo by Jared Angle)

Some work as bartenders and parking attendants, others spend late nights cleaning homes and office buildings, and most work long hours.

“They’re exhausted,” says Delgado. Some students struggle with attendance or fall asleep in class because they are working two or sometimes three jobs.

Most of the students here aren’t interested in going to college. They want to learn English so they can get a better job. Many of their dreams are one small step higher than what they’re doing currently. One student washes dishes in a restaurant and wants to be a server. Another babysits and wants to open a small daycare center. A third works in a beauty parlor and hopes to eventually become a supervisor there.

After years of struggling, Perez says her life is wonderful now. Her daughter and grandchild have moved to the U.S., she works just one job, and she’s become a citizen. As she becomes more comfortable talking about her life, she switches to speaking English.

“I love America, this country for me is a special country,” she says. “I have my dream. My family is better, living better.”