Families on the Path to Literacy. BREAKING THE CYCLE OF IGNORANCE

WHEN Lynnette Russ dropped out of school at age 15 to get married, chances for furthering her education seemed slim. Now 20, she's enrolled in an innovative educational program that she hopes will benefit not only her, but her children. ``I don't want my children to be dropouts,'' she says. ``I don't want them to learn that from me.''

Mrs. Russ and her four-year-old son Rusty are among the 15 sets of parents and children coming to Gregory Elementary School here to take part in the Family Literacy Project, a year-long, experimental program in adult education designed to benefit the whole family.

The program, funded by a private grant, is offered at four schools in North Carolina and three in Kentucky. About 100 parents are involved - more than half of whom are single mothers. None finished high school. Some have never had jobs.

At Gregory Elementary, parents offer various reasons for coming to the classes. Some are attracted by the free child care. Most say they are interested in the vocational training program that can certify them to become a teacher's assistant (TA).

All who do come spend three mornings a week studying for their GED (high school equivalency) certificates. In a separate room, their children learn to play together, follow directions, and organize shapes and colors. During the children's nap, adults attend parenting and vocational classes. Later, parents come together with children and a teacher to learn how to work better with children at home.

``Jonathan is very high strung. I've learned to handle that better,'' says Barbara Bordeaux, a quiet, red-haired mother working independently in a 12th-grade reader. Jonathan, who just turned 5, is doing well in the program, too, she says. ``He's learned to count from 1 to 20. He's getting ready for kindergarten.''

Annie Smith, a single mother of four, says the program has helped her children. And now, ``I can sit down and help them with their homework. It's giving me the opportunity to get my GED and a career in my life.''

THE family literacy program aims to unite parents and children in a common quest for education.

``We're trying to build on the strength of the family,'' says Sharon K. Darling, a Kentucky educator who designed and directs the project. ``We're trying to provide a support for education in the homes.''

That task could hardly be more timely. According to the study ``Children in Need,'' published by the New York-based Committee for Economic Development in 1987, as many as one-third of the children in the United States entering kindergarten may not have the basic skills for successful schooling.

While no one knows just how many adults lack basic reading and writing skills (the US Department of Education puts it between 23 million and 28 million), there has been growing concern that adult illiteracy contributes to unemployment and poverty.

People who move through the school system not learning, or drop out of school, are often the ones whose children are born in poverty, says Sandra Hamburg, a deputy director of the Committee for Economic Development. These children are ``at the greatest risk of failing in school. That traps the mother and child in a cycle of poverty,'' she adds.

Within the last five years, however, hundreds of programs have sprung up throughout the country that are trying to help the American family two generations at a time. The Family Literacy Project, which began last year, is based on the State of Kentucky's award-winning Parent and Child Education Project and is funded by a $700,000 grant from the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust in Chapel Hill, N.C.

``We're trying to reach the hard core,'' says Ms. Darling, ``the parents who are most at risk economically and the children who are most at risk educationally.''

The program gives parents the opportunity to volunteer for one period a day in elementary-grade classrooms and in the school office. This helps them gain experience for jobs as teachers' aides. The jobs, which require only a GED, start at $915 a month.

``The vocational time is the most important thing,'' says Donna McMillan, a 20-year-old mother of four, whose previous jobs have included farm work and cleaning motel rooms at the beach. Ms. McMillan, who says she has always liked children, now hopes to qualify for a job as a TA or child-care assistant.

``There is a lot of demand for TAs,'' says Dorothy DeShields, principal at Gregory Elementary. For those with GEDs and good recommendations, ``the possibility of becoming a teaching assistant is good,'' she says.

THE vocational work is also intended to help parents develop positive views of schools. ``Parental involvement [in schools] raises children's achievement,'' says Darling. ``We know that this population feels intimidated by the school. And teachers may not understand that this group of parents cares as much about their children as anybody.''

Despite the many bonuses of the free program, few parents find it easy. Family responsibilities and financial pressures have taken their toll. So has the challenge of mastering the curriculum. Only about half of these 15 parents have been in the program since it began last fall.

Ms. Smith shows a visitor her journal, kept as a writing assignment. In it she chronicles her daily struggle to stay in school. ``I may have been a dropout before, but I can't be a quitter all my life,'' her most recent entry reads.

The success of the Family Literacy Project will be evaluated in terms of gains in skills of parents and children, changes in attitudes of parents, and a long-term follow-up, says Robert Stoltz, a director of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, which is administering the project grant.

But some of the most important gains may be hard to measure. ``Can't you see what it does for their self-esteem?'' asks principal DeShields. ``Even getting up in the morning and coming here instead of sitting home watching TV has made a difference.''

Given the costs of illiteracy, ``if a program can produce even modest gains, it doesn't take too long for it to pay for itself,'' says Mr. Stoltz.

``None of these programs is going to yield quick results,'' adds Ms. Hamburg. ``But our common sense tells us that if you teach parents to read and respect education, they're going to pass that down to a child.''

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