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Southern states band together to combat illiteracy

Officials from 13 Southern states and Puerto Rico have labeled their region the least educated in the nation and announced formation of the Southern Literacy Forum to combat the problem. "There are thousands of individual literacy programs out there. A lot of good is going on, but it's like dipping the Mississippi River dry with a teaspoon," former Mississippi Gov. William Winter wrote in a report released at a news conference Sunday.

"A center will help us coordinate, on a regional basis, what has to be one of the most important projects that anybody can be involved in," he wrote.

In the 13 Southern states, at least 30 percent of adults are high school dropouts. This is true in only three of the other 37 states, the report said.

The forum will be an offshoot of the Southern Growth Policies Board, which southern governors created to develop their economies and people.

The states are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

The report, "Literacy is Everybody's Business," noted the very meaning of literacy has changed throughout the century.

"Today's literacy would seem like higher education to our grandparents," it said. "In fact, the education that was once sufficient to enable any ambitious adult to get ahead now can't even help him hold his place on the assembly line."

Today even entry-level jobs may require some college education. And farming, a crucial part of the Southern economy, needs more than a field hand's skills.

"Once it was enough to read the ripeness of a tomato or the sky's forecast of rain. Today's farmer is the chief executive officer, purchasing agent, personnel officer, and financial manager of a rapidly evolving, highly sophisticated business," the report said.

The report estimated that literacy programs currently are attended by fewer than 10 percent of Southern adults who need to improve their reading, speaking and mathematics skills.

A regional partnership is needed to expand such offerings because no single Southern state has the money or other resources to reach and teach all the people who need help, the report said.

The Southern Literacy Forum will help states put together such programs, pay for or conduct research to improve them and provide information, training and other help to local literacy programs.

Initial support for the organization will come from $175,000 the board hopes to raise from foundations and private donors.

Drop in number of GED candidates causes concern

WASHINGTON _ Educators say it appears that fewer dropouts are seeking high school equivalency diplomas, posing a threat to the nation's economic future.

In a study of diploma candidates, the American Council on Education found 683,000 people took the tests during 1989, 7 percent less than in 1988 and less than 1.3 percent of the 43-million adults over 18 without a high school diploma.

The number of candidates aged 18 to 24 declined by 26 percent. Only half of that drop may be attributed to a decline in numbers for that age group, according to the study released Sunday by the council's General Educational Development (GED) Testing Service.

"If young people are choosing to work rather than complete their schooling, the price may be high for both individuals and society _ individuals lose opportunities for additional training, advanced education, better jobs and higher wages, while society loses the increased productivity of better educated, more highly skilled workers," the study said.

"In order to qualify for training, further education, jobs and higher earnings, these adults must have opportunities to earn high school diplomas."

Program director Douglas Whitney and Janet Baldwin, senior research associate, said the study showed a great need for more outreach efforts to increase access to programs for high school completion.

Among other findings:

The percentage of GED candidates who reported having left school due to pregnancy or marriage tripled from 1980 to 1989.

About three of every four candidates reported having grades while in school of "mostly "C' or better" in both 1980 and 1989.