More than half of Cleveland Residents Read Below a 7th Grade Level

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Earlier this year, a study ranked Cleveland as the “most distressed” big city in America. The Economic Innovation Group, a non-profit think-tank, found that 1 in 5 people in Cleveland don’t have a high school diploma. 

One reason some students drop out of school is because they’re poor readers. ideastream's Darrielle Snipes takes a look at the adult low-literacy rate and what is being done to break the cycle.

Reading doesn't come easy for Dontez. With help from a tutor he struggles to sound out every word.

Since the beginning of the year, the two have been working together on Wednesday mornings at Merrick House, a community center in the Tremont neighborhood.

“I can read simple words,” Dontez said. “I sound them out, like we were doing, I break them down But some words I just don't know.”

Dontez, who asked his last name not be used, is 27 years-old but his reading skills are that of a 5 year-old. He says he has a learning disability. As a child kids teased him.  He repeated the 9th grade before dropping out.

He spent 5 years in prison and says while there he tried to work on his reading.  Now, he works in a factory. He says an employment agency helped him with the application. 

A 2009 study by Case Western Reserve University shows Dontez isn't alone. In the city of Cleveland 69% of adults read at or below the 7th grade level. In Cuyahoga County its 46%.  The report concludes people with low reading levels can have severe economic disadvantages and find it harder to get or keep even a minimum wage paying job.

Bob Paponetti, the executive director of The Literacy Cooperative says “theoretically they can't get into those very training programs that could give them the technical skills to get a job that could get them out of poverty or to the next level of income.”

The non-profit is working to connect organizations with those who need literacy help.  He says for those who are employed, many hide the fact that they can’t read well and, consequently, are unlikely to advance in their jobs. “They have figured out the work arounds,” Paponetti said.  “They get their jobs done.  They do a good job.  They get a good evaluation.  Yet, they have challenges advancing and when presented with an opportunity the company might have to move up, they may be reluctant because they may get exposed."

Paponetti says it’s usually when someone wants to get their GED or land a promotion -- that’s when they realize they need to seek help to improve their reading.

So the Literacy Cooperative is working to provide both literacy classes alongside job training programs.

Paponetti says as it stands now resources aren’t meeting the demand. According to the Ohio Department of Higher Education, Cuyahoga County receives just more than $3 million in state and federal funds that go toward five literacy programs including Parma City Schools, Seeds of Literacy and Cuyahoga County Public Library.

Dorothy Sigelmier loves reading the funnies out of the newspaper, now.

This great-grandmother says she went to Project Learn for help four years ago and had to wait a year to get a tutor. At that time she had the reading skills of a third grader.  Dorothy is proud to say she’s improved to a sixth grade level.  

“I love it! I love reading and writing! I love that,” said this 60 year-old.

Dorothy says her mother couldn't read.  And she never really got an education herself.  She had a troubled family life and became pregnant at 15. She says her second husband is the only person who knew her secret -- that she couldn’t read.

“One time I picked up a paper and it was upside down and they said, 'How are you going to read the paper upside down?' And I was like, Oh, I wasn't really reading. I was looking.  I was embarrassed," she said.

This mother of five says her daughters don't read well either.  The Case Western Reserve study concludes children who have mothers with low levels of education are less likely to have early literacy skill. 

Two years ago the Ohio Department of Education started the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. It is designed to identify and setup an intervention program for students who are behind in reading. 

Paponetti says programs like this will not only help the children but also the parents with low reading skills become literate. 

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