Literacy program helps participants turn the page to a new life

ESPAÑOLA — At 33 years of age, Jose Martinez had one simple goal in life: read the Bible.

But first, he had to overcome a big challenge.

He couldn’t read.

He wasn’t alone. Nationwide, some 21 percent of adults are reading below the fifth-grade level, according to 2014 statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy. Representatives of the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy, a statewide nonprofit that works to improve adult literacy rates through a number of programs, including one-on-one tutoring, believe that number is significantly higher in New Mexico, with some 46 percent of the state’s adults struggling to read.

As the coalition celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, representatives of its chapters around the state say many people remain unaware of just how many adults around them are unable to master this basic skill. In some ways, it’s one of New Mexico’s deepest secrets. And yet, oddly, it’s often in plain view.

Many of the adults lacking literacy skills dropped out of school after failing to grasp reading year after year. Jobs are hard to find for those who struggle to read, and when they do land jobs, the wages are often low. Many end up in jail. A recent report from the New York-based nonprofit ProLiteracy — the largest literacy organization in the country — says 72 percent of Americans who are behind bars either lack a high school diploma or have low-level literacy skills.

And their children can suffer, as well, experts say, because if mothers and fathers don’t know how to read, it’s unlikely they are going to help their kids learn — all the more devastating in a state where some 80 percent of students are not reading at their grade level by the fourth grade. That’s a point Gov. Susana Martinez has repeatedly made in her unsuccessful efforts to push through legislation that would give the state the right to hold back a third-grader who cannot read at grade level.

But beyond the statistics, adults struggling with literacy skills say they are paying a high emotional and economic price.

“Any kind of business prospecting here and learning of the low-literacy skills of our residents is likely to pull out,” said Heather Heunermund, executive director of the New Mexico Coalition of Literacy. “We tend to import a lot of talent for high-tech jobs, but we have very bright citizens here.

“Literacy is a skill, and if an adult who struggles with reading can improve that skill, they can get that job, stay here, see their median household income increase, improve their families’ lives and succeed in doing better.”

Trickle-down effect

At home, the impact can be more troubling when it comes to the well-being of children.

“One common denominator [among adults who cannot read] is that probably their mother and father were not good readers,” said Muncie Hansen, executive director of the Read West literacy program housed in Rio Rancho.

“We say if you want a child to succeed in school, teach your children to read. But how can you do that when you can’t read?”

Interviews with literacy experts around the state indicate the majority of adults who struggle with reading or who cannot read at all share the same story: Somewhere along the path between elementary school and high school, they figured out they were not reading well, but the system kept passing them on to the next grade until, like Jose Martinez, they dropped out of school.

“In the 10th grade, I realized I didn’t learn to read and write,” Martinez said. “I started freaking out. I was afraid. I thought it was too late. It was too late.”

Coalition members say that’s not so. However, they say, the only way out is to own up, like Martinez did, to the fact that they need help and ask for it.

“The adults who can’t really read at all are ashamed, and it’s harder to find them,” said Mary Beth Folia, program director for the Literacy Link-Leamos program in Silver City.

When these adult students come into her office to talk about their problem, they often break down in tears of shame and failure, she said.

Martinez understands that feeling. Once he left Española Valley High School, he drifted and then “did some jail time” for minor infractions of the law when he was still a juvenile.

But he knew how to work with his hands — his father was a miner in Questa — and managed to earn a union certificate for carpentry that in turn got him a job in construction.

Martinez married, and he and his wife had two children. All the while, he never let on that he couldn’t read.

He faked it. And since he wears glasses, it was easy for him to say he had left them at home if a co-worker asked him to read something. He could use that ruse when filling out a job application, too, taking it back to his house where someone else — like his sister, who knew about his problem — could fill it out for him.

That story is not unusual, Folia, Hansen and Heunermund say. They know people who cannot read but whose basic knowledge of the alphabet allows them to use their smartphones to spell. One Silver City woman, Folia said, figured out how to put together the shapes of the letters of various street signs as identifiers to find her way home from work.

“So she knows what ‘Spruce Street’ looks like even though she can’t read the words,” Folia said.

“I know one gentleman who would communicate with me on Facebook messenger,” Hansen said. “But I always wondered if he was really reading what I wrote or whether he was having his computer help him.”

What turns many of them around are simple goals. One wanted to read a menu. Another wanted to learn how to read to his daughter. A third said he wanted to be able to use a computer.

The long road back

For Martinez, 39, it all started when he began attending an Española church about six years ago. He would pick up a Bible or hymn book and pretend to read along but had no idea what he was looking at.

“I wanted to find a way to serve God,” he said. He felt that was not possible without learning how to read.

He finally broke down and went to his wife, Vanessa, to tell her the truth. She told him she already knew because his sister had revealed the secret.

Martinez sought help at the Rio Arriba Literacy Program in Española, where he was introduced to tutor Ernest Cata, a retired machinist whose wife urged him to get involved in the community.

“He knew his alphabet,” Cata recalled of Martinez in the early days. “He knew his vowels and the sounds. That was helpful. But he could not put words together.”

After six years of tutoring, Martinez sometimes reads with the halting tone of an elementary school student, faltering with words like “sweetie” and “honey” but still able to fully read a chapter in a novel — or pages of verse in the Bible.

“It’s like a new challenge to me,” he said. “It’s exciting.”

Some people cannot handle the challenge and end up dropping out, Hansen said.

“They are into this program for about two or three months,” she said, “and things start to get hard and they start to remember, ‘This is why I dropped out of school. I didn’t like this reading thing.’ It can be a little bit of a challenge for the tutor to help push and still encourage the adult student to continue, but they are going to hit a sweet spot and be able to master this.”

Still others just won’t come out from the shadows.

Heunermund said one way to find those adults is to go through their children.

“Often if you have a struggling student, you have a struggling parent, and that can be a key to finding that parent,” she said. “Sort of a reverse approach, instead of assuming the parent will come to us.”

Martinez thinks that is necessary. He said his niece, who recently graduated from high school, confided to him that she cannot read. He is urging her to seek help but she passes it off as a joke, saying the family genes make little room for literacy.

“She makes fun of it,” he said, but to him it’s no laughing matter, since his niece had to ask her mother to fill out her job application for the current position she holds.

Though coalition members refrain from taking a stand on the governor’s efforts to hold kids back a grade if they cannot read, Jose Martinez said, “They should do it.”

It is unclear if Gov. Martinez will push for that initiative in the upcoming legislative session — her last as governor because her second term ends in December 2018. Democratic lawmakers have repeatedly opposed the idea, calling it the “third-grade flunking bill” and arguing that it affects a student’s self-esteem and can lead to higher dropout rates down the line.

Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan did not respond to an email and phone call requesting comment for this story.

Heunermund said she sees literacy as the ticket to solving many of society’s ills, since low literacy skills often go hand in hand with poor social and economic standings.

“If we could fix this, I think a lot of our problems and concerns as a society could be easily addressed,” she said.

Jose Martinez agrees. For him, learning to read is opening up a world of new possibilities. He said every book he holds in his hands “is my Bible.”

More importantly, he said, now he can be a real father: “I’m reading to my daughter.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

For information about adult literacy, or to schedule an interview, donate, volunteer as a tutor or refer a potential student, call the New Mexico Coalition for Literacy hotline at 800-233-7587 or visit www.newmexicoliteracy.org.

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