Adults find a high school education is better late than never

ON Richard Ascolillo's living-room wall hangs a document that many relegate to the obscurity of a rarely touched desk drawer or attic chest -- his high school diploma. It has special meaning for Mr. Ascolillo, because it took special effort to get it. ``I should have been part of the class of 1965,'' he says quietly, smiling as he recounts the events that brought him, 20 years behind schedule, to a recent graduation ceremony at Boston English High School.

A short, stocky man who earns his living as an auto body specialist, Mr. Ascolillo was one of 124 adults honored at a summer commencement. Since dropping out of school over two decades ago, he had always held the idea of returning to the classroom, but family and job demands made it hard.

One day, however, he saw a newspaper notice about the ``External Diploma Program'' run jointly by the Boston public schools and the city's Adult Literacy Initiative, and he felt the time was right. Over the years, he says, ``I had lots of jobs escape because I didn't have a diploma, and I wanted to set an example for my 15-year-old son.''

And not just for his son. ``All the kids in the neighborhood'' know about his successful return to school, he says, beaming.

Mr. Ascolillo is among thousands of adults across the country who've taken up long-neglected schoolbooks to work toward a diploma. And it wasn't a solitary endeavor for this East Boston resident. ``I had my wife and my family behind me all the way,'' he says. There were times, he admits, when he thought he wouldn't finish. ``But I said to myself, `I'm capable of finishing, of sticking it out.' ''

The family connection also meant a lot to Doretha Almond of Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. Before entering the city's program, which has a strong emphasis on improved literacy, she had had difficulty with reading -- particularly, she says, figuring out the pronunciation of many words. Now she can take a hand in helping her two sons, aged 4 and 7, with their homework. ``My son has a problem in reading, so I've been helping him,'' she says, with quiet pride.

Mrs. Almond's experience typifies that of most parents who take steps to strengthen basic academic skills. The impact on family life can be profound, according to Karen Gaughan of Literacy Volunteers of America. Parents with sound reading ability will be more intelligent consumers, safer drivers, and less likely to fall prey to a lot of ``social forces'' -- everything from TV ads to demagogic political pitches -- ``that are visually or orally persuasive,'' she asserts.

There's also the question of the rudiments of child care. A parent lacking literacy may not even be able to use a telephone book to call for help when it's needed, notes Karen Norton, who is on the staff of Laubach Literacy Action, which, like Literacy Volunteers, is headquartered in Rochester, N.Y.

For Catherine Cribb of the Charlestown section of Boston, the problem was not so much reading as math. The External Diploma program, she says, ``particularly strengthened'' her ability to work with numbers.

But far beyond that it helped this bright, expressive woman prove two points. First, to herself -- that she had what it took to finally get a diploma. Second, to her daughter, who had dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. In the past, says Mrs. Cribb, her daughter's stock reply to exhortations to return to school was, ``Why should I finish, you didn't.''

Now that same daughter plans to start courses at Charlestown's Bunker Hill Community College which will eventually lead toward her own high school diploma.

That same motivation -- setting an example for children -- influenced John Hearing, assistant manager of the in-house television system at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and father of a nine-year-old son.

``I was trying to beat him out of high school,'' he says of his son, only partly joking. Mr. Hearing had signed up for the program thinking he would try to pick up some Spanish so he could communicate better with the hospital's many Hispanic patients. He ended up taking all the courses necessary to get the diploma.

The ability to concentrate and study was hard to recapture, says Mr. Hearing. ``I had to get it back again,'' he says, recalling that it took a few months. But his sense of accomplishment -- something shared by all these elder graduates -- more than compensated for the effort.

The diploma can be ``an amazing boost to many of these folks,'' says Jim Cates, director of the Adult Performance Level Project at the University of Texas. His organization pioneered research on illiteracy in the United States and developed a ``competency based'' high school diploma program that's now used in some 40 states. That program, designed to let adults progress at their own pace, concentrates on literacy, communication, and problem-solving skills.

Mr. Cates says that the problems of substandard education and varying degrees of illiteracy -- which beset more than 70 million Americans -- are only beginning to be addressed in this country. ``It's a matter of tragedy,'' he says, ``that we've not been able to get a national policy statement that there shall be no illiteracy in the US.''

Meanwhile, highly motivated Americans of all backgrounds, like the 124 graduates at Boston English, are making their own personal statements against illiteracy and what Ms. Gaughan terms ``limited life potentials.''

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