December 20, 2005

Kentucky grannies lead fight against illiteracy

By Alan Elsner

MOUSIE, Kentucky (Reuters) - In a battle against
persistent, deeply entrenched poverty, where adult illiteracy,
unemployment and drug addiction are rife, teachers in the U.S.
Appalachia region have unleashed a new weapon -- granny power.

Under a program sponsored by Save the Children, schools in
several counties of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, among the
poorest in the nation, have recruited over 80 grandparents to
work in the schools helping children learn how to read.

The grannies -- all but three are women and most are well
into their seventies -- spend several hours a day, working
one-on-one with children who have difficulty reading.

"I want to see them do better than driving a coal truck,"
said Alma Fraser, 71, in her eighth year as a volunteer. She
puts in 7-1/2 hours four days a week at Jones Fork Elementary
School in the small village of Mousie, and is one of six
grannies working at the school.

"I want to see them wearing ties and white shirts. Be a
lawyer, be a doctor, be a chemist, an engineer," she said. "But
you can't do anything without an education any more and reading
is the root of it."

Mousie is located in Knott County in the hills of eastern
Kentucky, traditional logging and coal country. But both those
industries are in decline and nothing has come to replace them.
Median household income stood at $23,500 in 2003 -- little over
half the national average. Almost two thirds of the families
live below the poverty line.

Some companies in Kentucky report difficulty in recruiting
suitably educated and trained workers even when jobs are
available. Others considering setting up facilities may be
deterred by the lack of a skilled work force.

"Our biggest problem is their home lives. The value of
education is not that strong," said Greg Conn, principal of
Jones Fork Elementary School.

"This is a community where drugs are very prevalent. Not
that many of our students have fathers at home, adult
illiteracy is very high, as is unemployment."


Though illegal, marijuana is the number one cash crop in
this region, according to the Office of National Drug Control
Policy. But Appalachia has also experienced a dramatic upsurge
in the use of methamphetamine as well as prescription drug

The majority of children arriving for their first day of
kindergarten are already well behind their peers in more
affluent neighborhoods, said Dana Slone, principal of the
neighboring Cross Creek Elementary School.

"The majority have no phonetic awareness at all. They are
not aware that sounds make words. They have never been read to
at home," she said.

Tabatha Holcolm, a first grade teacher at Cross Creek, said
she could always tell which children had been read to at home.
"They understand the way words are put together and how print
works and where a book begins and ends," she said.

Some children have hardly even been exposed to real
conversation, said Alisa Huff, the "reading recovery"
coordinator at Cross Creek, who helps train and supervise the
nine granny volunteers who work in the school.

The grannies get a small stipend of bit more than $2 an
hour from Save the Children, which itself receives charitable

Home for some of these children is a mobile home parked
with a few other similar dwellings in an isolated "holler" -- a
narrow valley that cuts into the forested hills. A few stray
dogs run around the muddy clearings where the homes stand,
horses munch on grass and the area is strewn with dozens of
wrecked and abandoned vehicles, plundered for their parts.


Sometime, the children confide in the grannies, telling
them that "daddy hit mommy last night," or "daddy went to sleep
with his girlfriend."

Dorothy Seals, 76, once heard a child say that her home was
robbed the previous night, "but they didn't get nothin' but
mom's drugs."

At Cross Creek, only 44 percent of fourth graders (9-10
year-olds) are reading on grade level and only 35 percent of
seventh graders (12-13 year-olds). In mathematics, the
situation is worse with 74 percent in the fifth grade below the
required standard.

But the grannies are making a difference. At the lower
grades, where they have been working one on one, scores are
rising and most students are at or near grade level.

Loretta Shepherd was thinking of retiring after 36 years as
a teacher but decided to stay on at Jones Fork so that she
could teach the first generation of granny-trained students to
reach her classroom.

Now she thinks half of them could go to college.

But without parental backing, this may still be a vain
hope. "If the expectation from the home is not there, it is not
going to happen," said Slone. "I see kids who are straight A
students who drop out of high school, and that potential is
never fulfilled."

The grannies themselves are among the biggest
beneficiaries. "It's good for us. It gives us a reason to get
up in the morning. And the kids are very good to me. I get hugs
every day. It means a lot," Fraser said.

In a school district where an estimated 40 percent of the
adults are illiterate, it is not surprising that some of the
children initially resist efforts to be educated.

Fraser recalled one child whose father was illiterate who
said he didn't care if he learned to read or not. That child is
now 12 and said he sometimes reads to his father.