Much of county's population without sufficient education

By Julie Fann

In Tennessee, 24 percent of adults age 25 and older do not have a high school diploma, according to the Tennessee Association for Adult and Community Education. In Carter County, that percentage increases to 30.9 percent.
   The total population of adults 25 and older in Carter County in 2000 was 39,450, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those who had less than a ninth grade education totaled 5,567, or 14.1 percent of the population.
   Those who had attended ninth through twelfth grade but who did not receive a diploma totaled 6,625, or 16.8 percent of the population of the county age 25 and older.
   Several factors contribute to the disappointing statistics, according to Javy Taylor, Supervisor of Adult Education for the Carter County school system who said that, last year, 319 county residents attended adult education classes, and 85 received their GED.
   One of the factors contributing to illiteracy and low education levels is poverty, Taylor said. "Poverty is a factor. Without doing a study, it's just my opinion, but it is a guess -- that and having parents without an education and not being encouraged to pursue more education."
   People of all ages living in poverty in Carter County, according to U.S. Census Bureau records, was 8,478 in 1998, an estimated 16 percent of the population of the county at that time.
   The median household income in Carter County in 2000 was $27,899 and, in general, the wages of adults with a GED were reportedly 5 percent to 11 percent higher than those of dropouts.
   According to the Tennessee Department of Education, employed adults without a high school diploma will earn over 30 percent less in their lifetimes than adults with diplomas, and forty percent of local employers have trouble finding employees who are prepared for entry-level jobs with the basic reading and math skills they need.
   "We used to have a lot of plants here, and you didn't need a high school diploma to work in those plants. For example, North American and Bemberg," Taylor said. "Kids 16 years old used to work in those plants. In the county population, there was no need to have a high school diploma. Now, it's imperative."
   Much of the population included in the 25 and older bracket in the county came of age under an entirely different set of educational laws. Past legislation surrounding education was much less stringent, so fewer adults received their high school diploma.
   "In the past, compulsory age attendance in the state of Tennessee was 16. Kids reached the age of 16 and just dropped out. Now, students must be 18 years old before they can drop out of high school," Taylor said.
   Many Carter Countians are also war veterans, having served in either World War II, the Korean Conflict, or in Vietnam. During that time, joining the military didn't require a high school diploma.
   "You've got to have a diploma now to get into the military. Many people who served in Korea and Vietnam were very likely high school drop outs who quit to join the war effort," said Taylor.
   Linda Bowling, Family Literacy Coordinator for Carter County, said literacy is broken down into six different categories and that those who read below a fifth grade level are among the lowest.
   According to the TAACE, fourteen percent of the population age 25 and older in Carter County have a less than ninth-grade education and are considered functionally illiterate. This translates into 12,192 adults in Carter County who need adult education services.
   "We have had people go from a very low reading level to receiving their GED, but very few," Bowling said. "We start students on low levels with a one-on-one tutor, then we move them into a pre-GED or GED class. It's working real well."
   This year, Bowling said her office has approximately six teachers and six students who are working together one-on-one. "It's just the beginning of the year right now. Usually we have around 23 or so students."
   Bowling's office also teaches adult coping skills, such as how to use grocery store coupons and how to fill out job applications. The program includes guest speakers.
   "I'm a dedicated person because I have a big heart, and none of the other teachers wanted the job. And I just love it," added Bowling, who said she had "27 years of experience" in adult education.
   Taylor said that, in the next 20 years, he believes the number of adults without a high school diploma in the county will be significantly lower due to a change in the above factors he mentioned and an increase in learning tools available to students now.
   During the past ten years, at-risk programs to help youth to stay in school have been implemented in the county and have grown rapidly. Taylor expects this will lead to better results down the road.
   "We can project now what a sixth or seventh grader is going to score on his or her ACT test five years later. That's a tool that we've acquired just in the last two weeks. With the new data we have now, we can sit down with parents and explain to them exactly what their child's future in education will look like."
   November 1 has been designated Family Literacy Day. The Tennessee Family Literacy Summit, given by the Department of Education, is scheduled to take place Nov. 8 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville.
   Sponsored by the Statewide Family Literacy Initiative, the event targets civic and business leaders, school administrators and teachers, and community and non-profit organizations.