Literacy program taps college students as tutors

NORMAN MANASA has kept a dream alive since he was an undergraduate in 1968. And it's just now starting to come true. The dream? ``To transfer economic power to the illiterate poor.'' The way to do that, he figured, was to give them something that no one could ever take away: the ability to read, write, and do math. Who could give it to them? College students, who had not only the skills but also the untapped desire to share.

So he developed a program in which undergrads would tutor children and adults - and get college credit.

Now, almost 20 years later, the idea is starting to come to fruition. His tutoring program is on six campuses and receiving high-level corporate funding. And if legislation sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts passes, the program could be federally underwritten on a much larger scale.

If only a small percentage of the nation's undergraduates spent six hours a week tutoring, Mr. Manasa says, a wave of tutors could be released. That, he says, could start making a dent in the huge number of Americans who are illiterate.

In September, Stonehill College, Endicott College, Boston College, and Bunker Hill Community College, all in the Boston area, offered a tutoring course as an elective. St. John's University in Queens, N.Y., was the first, last year, and has since expanded the program to another campus.

The United States Department of Education estimates that 27 million adult Americans are ``functionally illiterate'' - can't read printed instructions, newspapers, bus schedules, etc.

The hidden costs of illiteracy are extraordinarily high, according to Jonathan Kozol, who wrote ``Illiterate America'': more than $120 billion a year for such things as industrial accidents and welfare payments, and more than $100 billion in lower gross national product. Other, higher, calculations add in the cost of crime and poverty.

And with the US moving into an increasingly technological era, those who can't read might be more than unemployed; they might be unemployable.

Manasa's Literacy Corps joins a host of state and private literacy programs run by churches and community groups. PBS and ABC have run literacy campaigns. And there's a movement afoot to get newspapers to start their own.

Manasa started working on the tutoring-for-credit idea as a student at the University of Miami. Over a period of four years, 1,000 undergraduates who signed up got three credits for tutoring in prisons, inner-city schools, and Head Start centers. They also met in weekly seminars with supervising professors.

He came to Washington 10 years ago to generate interest in the project on a national scale and formed a nonprofit corporation, the Washington Education Project. Then-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Manasa's former boss, got interested. While he was chairman of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the Constitution, Mr. Burger had Manasa speak to the commission about the program. Senator Kennedy heard him and suggested he call his staff.

``This program taps the idealism and potential of young people,'' Mr. Kennedy says. ``It encourages them to pitch in in their communities. And its great success as a pilot program makes me think it could work on a nationwide basis.''

Manasa has already gained corporate funding for his vision: the New York Daily News, the Xerox Foundation, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company, Hughes Aircraft Company, Primerica, the Los Angeles Times, and the Bank of Boston.

``Nothing could be more important to the future of this country than the education of our young and reeducation of others who never got the chance,'' says Ken Rossano, director of development at Bank of Boston. ``That's why you'll see more and more companies willing to take part.''

Kennedy's bill authorizes $20 million to be divided up into $25,000 grants that would go to 800 colleges that applied for them. The colleges would receive the funds in four payments over two years. The money would be for administrative and supervisory purposes, minimizing the risk to the university until there's enough demand for the class to be incorporated into the regular degree program. Then the costs would be absorbed by student tuition.

Acknowledging that 1960s altruism won't go far in the tight-fisted '80s, Manasa's program is as no-frills as an L.L. Bean boot. His enthusiasm, however, is not.

``We'd do this only in agencies that exist and that have teaching programs in place,'' he said in a phone interview. ``There would be no storefronts, no capital investment. We'd just pump in tutors, use the books already in the classroom that have been paid for by taxpayers. Consequently, there's virtually no money involved.''

To avoid upsetting teachers who might view tutors as interlopers, the plan lets teachers choose whether they want tutors and decide which students will be tutored. The tutors maintain a consistent schedule of six hours a week, allowing the teachers to plan around them.

``I wanted the [college] kids not sitting in class and getting only theory but to be able to move between the two worlds of theory and experience. As you can imagine, putting students in ghetto schools would give them a hard dose of reality,'' says Manasa. He adds that the students also get job experience for the future.

And something more intangible: ``It would teach the old virtues of duty, obligation, and compassion,'' he says. ``They can't be learned as theoretical exercises, but only by taking up the responsibility of welfare for another individual.''

Ann Saffi, a student at St. John's University, took part in its program last spring. She tutored in a second-grade class as one of her four internships in social work. ``It started out as a simple tutoring job, but developed into much more of a relationship,'' she says. ``I was only supposed to go until the beginning of May, but stayed until the end of their term.''

Donna Petrie, who is the course instructor for the St. John's program, says the tutored students gain more than just reading skills.

``You take 10- to 12-year-olds already in trouble with courts. They don't trust anybody but their own kind. A kind of bonding takes place. It gives them another chance, because somebody believes in them.''

One criticism of the program is that it doesn't provide much training; students start tutoring from the first week of class, but do meet with a faculty adviser weekly. Karl Haigler, director of the federal Department of Education's adult literacy initiative, reserves judgment on this fledgling program but says, ``Teaching an adult how to read is not an easy proposition. It takes more than a year to get someone reading at low level to advance a grade. To what extent are students, and adults, able to commit to that?''

Other literacy experts say the money might be better used to support the already established network of literacy programs. ``My personal view would be to provide more funding for the $106 million national Adult Education Act [which supports adult literacy programs] rather than re-create a whole new support system,'' says Jinx Crouch, of the Literacy Volunteers of America.

The Literacy Corps leaves the structure of the course ``up to whoever's running it,'' says the Rev. Eugene Green at Stonehill College, in North Easton, Mass. There, the tutoring is part of the writing program: ``Writing, Literacy, and Power,'' and the course, says Fr. Green, ``provides a theoretical reflection on the experience students are having at the site. The method is learned on site.''

But one literacy expert, who asked not to be named, said, ``The bill makes the problem of adult literacy seem simple to solve when it is a multifaceted social, economic, psychological, and educational issue.''

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