Project literacy: a public library outpost in Stateway Gardens | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Project literacy: a public library outpost in Stateway Gardens 

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After three attempts, Margaret Wilson is coming close to passing her high school equivalency exam. Under the tutelage of a series of instructors, she has narrowed her margin of failure to a slim six points. "I'm down to my writing skills," she says, meaning a 200-word essay she has had trouble with. "I'll pass next time."

Wilson's lack of academic success doesn't prevent her from being an instructor of sorts herself. Wilson, a 31-year-old welfare recipient who left high school in the tenth grade to have the first of her three children, is a volunteer adult-literacy tutor at a Chicago Public Library reading and study center lodged within Stateway Gardens, the housing project at 3500 S. State where Wilson lives with her three children.

Her venue is a small room--overheated in winter, without air conditioning in summer--staffed by Tyrone Ward, the site coordinator, and two assistants. The room contains a variety of literacy texts, books on Africa and African American history, and five Apple computers, only three of which work. Mornings find a handful of adults, mostly women, congregated around a card table working on their arithmetic or their reading. Ward takes an eclectic approach to teaching, relying on poetry, oral histories, and tapes as much as on the books put out by the leading literacy groups.

Wilson comes to the center every day. "We'll listen to stories on cassette and then go over the same stories by reading them," Wilson says. "Or we'll fuss with an everyday book or the newspaper." Later in the day, when schoolchildren pack the center, she will assist kids in settling down with their homework. "I also get events organized," she says--sometimes the center has speakers come in, or parties.

She displays no sense of superiority toward her students. "It's not because I'm smarter that I'm helping," Wilson says. "I don't feel smarter or dumber. Fact is, the men and women I tutor may have gone farther in school than I did. But maybe they forgot some things. Lots of times neither of us can figure out a word, so we'll go to the dictionary together."

The concept is called "peer tutoring," and in many literacy centers like the one at Stateway it is born of necessity. Many people think of Barbara Bush, who has made literacy her cause, as the stereotypical tutor--white, educated, upper-middle-class. But the Barbara Bushes of Chicago seldom venture into Stateway. Instead, Ward must draw his volunteers from the housing development and its environs.

Relying on Margaret Wilson and other marginal readers makes good sense to literacy experts. "If your volunteer is white and middle-class, the gap may be too wide," says Judith Rake, who directs a statewide literacy funding program for the secretary of state's office. "Many students are more comfortable with someone who understands their problems."

"Margaret might be on a low level," says Ward, "but she's just done what the student's trying to do. That boosts confidence."

The literacy movement needs all the confidence it can get. Despite unprecedented enthusiasm for the task in recent years--Jim Edgar made one-on-one adult tutoring a hallmark of his term as secretary of state--the problem is still overwhelming. Since 1986, grants dispensed by the state have touched 65,000 students, among them those at Stateway and other Chicago Public Library programs. Roughly that same number are being reached annually by grants made to schools and community colleges through the state Board of Education. Nevertheless, Judy Rake pegs the number of Illinoisans who are over 16 and functionally illiterate at more than two million.

So Wilson's tutoring comes in handy.

She moved into Stateway in May 1983. She and her kids had previously been cramped in a basement flat, so the three-bedroom, eighth-floor apartment they moved into at the housing project seemed like a penthouse, and at much less rent. "I called it my 'hubba-hubba house,'" says Wilson, who still lives in the apartment.

She leaves it every morning at 10, bound for the study center, even when Stateway reverberates (as it often does) with the sound of gunfire. "The shooting and the other things that go on here are a strain, but I'm not going to sit home and watch soap operas all day," she says. "When there's shooting I look out the window until the police come. Whoever's shooting will stop while the cops are there. I say a prayer and dart on out." If she sees men loitering by the elevators or in the stairwells, she prays "that they aren't after me on that particular day." So far she's been lucky.

She passes the day at the study center. At 2:30 she fetches her children, two boys and a girl, from school, and they all go back to the center, which has a small collection of circulating books and a reference section. Wilson's youngsters begin their homework, and she helps patrons find titles in the racks, a task she likes.

Wilson's own reading habits are constrained by her ability. "I don't read as much as I should. I won't sit down and read a whole thick book, but I love little bitty books that have nice stories in them." She fancies volumes in the "Baby-Sitters Club" series, geared to preadolescent girls, that her daughter receives free at school.

A newspaper is a luxury. "I don't have change to buy one every day," Wilson reports, "but if I have the money I'll buy the Defender or the Wall Street Journal. Every once in a blue moon I go out to Oak Park and sit down in the Sizzler or the Arby's there with the Wall Street Journal. I don't know nothing about stocks--the markets aren't half as interesting to me as the stories they got on the front page."

Wilson tries to push reading at home however she can. "My TV doesn't go on before seven in the evening," she says. "No way--my kids have to finish their homework first." She purchased a Webster's dictionary for $9; now she's looking to buy a set of encyclopedias on the installment plan. Sometimes as darkness falls she'll put a chair in the hallway between her children's rooms and read a book aloud. "You can still hear shooting, but this is a way to get my kids to sleep early," Wilson says. "It leaves them with good thoughts at day's end."

Wilson thinks her efforts are paying off. Her children carry library cards and enjoy using them. Her nine-year-old son Byron lagged behind in reading last year, but now he is doing as well as his siblings. "He got a B the last two marking periods," says Wilson. "I praised him for it. I told him I was proud. I wasn't going to beat on him 'cause he didn't get an A. You can't push too much."

As for her neighbors at Stateway, Wilson says their reaction to her efforts has been positive: "They get curious about my going out all the time with books. 'Margaret, you still going to school?' they ask. So I tell 'em what I'm up to. Mrs. Hatch, my neighbor around the corner, wanted to brush up on her reading. She went to Dawson [a City Colleges program a few blocks away], but the cold started to bother her knees. Now she comes to the library program, at least once in a while."

The library installed its program at Stateway in March 1987 with the aim of attracting students by enmeshing itself into the community. Early on, Tyrone Ward enlisted local kids to hand out fliers on the program throughout the housing project. A potluck dinner drew 100 people, many of whom applied for library cards for the first time. By the time he'd finished, Ward had registered some 500 people, 8 percent of Stateway's population. One-third were children; 80 percent read at a sixth-grade level or below, the standard definition of adult illiteracy.

Despite their best efforts, Ward and his staffers have been hobbled in their mission by the realities of life at Stateway. "We've had no incident here," says Ward, "but I just got a call this morning from one of our students, for instance. She won't be coming today, she said--one of her grandsons was shot over the weekend." Many people Wilson knows are afraid to come to the literacy center. "See that field out there?" she says, motioning out the window. "Who wants to cross it if there's gang action going on?"

The rule of thumb among authorities on literacy is that it requires a year of concerted study for an especially poor reader to gain a grade level. But very few of Ward's students stay on board for a year at a time. Three months is closer to the average. "People are regularly involved from January to May, and then their kids are out of school and they get busy," says Ward. "In August they go away for family reunions."

While Ward has no statistics to back him up, he says his literacy program has had an impact. "Hundreds of people are learning to read and do basic skills," he says. "They see in us something in their community, where before there was nothing, even if it's a party or a speaker we've brought in. It has inspired many kids to do well in their studies."

He is heartened by the Chicago Public Library's plan to renovate the art deco building across the street, where a half-century ago black entrepreneur Anthony Overton published the Chicago Bee, which competed with the Chicago Defender. The first floor will house a branch library, the second floor a literacy center four times the size of the present one.

But the library has yet to set a start date for construction on the building. Then too, by the time the move comes Ward stands to have lost one assistant due to budgetary cutbacks. Another GED instructor stopped coming to Stateway last October, frightened off in part, Wilson supposes, by the violence.

It is Ward who now guides Wilson in studying for her GED exam. When she passes, Wilson--who wants to become a teacher or child psychologist--plans to continue tutoring others. "A lot of people come in here because they see kids coming over," she says. "Or they see people like me. They discover that they can come, too, instead of wasting time watching TV. This is here for them, but they have to decide to come, just like I did."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Al Kawano.


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