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Giving thanks where thanks is due for literacy

By Marie P. Grady
Correspondent

In a career spanning two decades in the Massachusetts House, Tom Petrolati has probably chewed on hundreds of political courses at dozens of legislative breakfasts.
Sometimes as many as four can be scheduled in one day by various interest groups vying for the ear of the Ludlow Democrat, who is Speaker Pro Tempore of the House. So, when Petrolati was invited to attend an event at the Ludlow Area Adult Learning Center last Feb. 1, it was anyone's guess whether his schedule would allow it.
But there he was, arriving amid the winter chill to celebrate a donation by Citizens Bank to the community education program offered by Holyoke Community College. A month later he was in downtown Springfield at another legislative breakfast that promoted the importance of literacy in building a better workforce.
Why? Because, as Petrolati related in Ludlow on that cold February day, he was more moved by a 2007 legislative breakfast featuring adult learners than almost any of the breakfasts he has attended in his political career.
Petrolati was among champions of literacy personally thanked by students at that 2007 legislative breakfast. So was State Sen. Michael R. Knapik, a Westfield Republican who has long supported literacy programs as a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Both used their leadership positions to help stave off massive cuts to adult education in 2007 and both are among the reasons state funding for adult education this year stands to grow by about $1 million to $31 million.
In the world of politics, adult education has not exactly been a hot button constituent issue, especially at a time when citizens are struggling with astronomical gas prices and a recession that looms like a storm cloud. But years of inadequate funding for literacy services have now paid off in a workforce that lacks the education and skills to help businesses grow. Lawmakers know that when the economy doesn't grow, we all suffer.
As chairwoman of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons With Disabilities, State Rep. Cheryl A. Coakley-Rivera gets it too. The Springfield Democrat was among co-sponsors of an amendment filed by state Rep. Daniel T. Bosley, D-North Adams, to increase funding for adult education to $35 million. Other Western Massachusetts representatives who signed on in support were longtime literacy supporter John W. Scibak, D-South Hadley; Christopher J. Donelan, D-Orange; Peter V. Kocot, D-Northampton; Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington; Angelo J. Puppolo, D-Springfield; Ellen Story, D-Amherst; Joseph F. Wagner, D-Chicopee, chairman of the Joint Committee on Transportation; and James T. Welch, D-West Springfield.
Coakley-Rivera also attended the March 7 legislative breakfast on literacy sponsored by the "Building a Better Workforce Coalition," a coalition of partners brought together by the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation. Others there included state Sen. Stephen J. Buoniconti, D-West Springfield, and State Reps. Puppolo; Donald F. Humason Jr., R-Westfield; and Rosemary Sandlin, D-Agawam.
A visit to one of the many open houses held in adult education centers this time of year offers a glimpse of what's at stake. At the Valley Opportunity Council's open house in Chicopee last month, students from ages 18 to over 60 sampled foods from Polish pierogis to Spanish rice while displaying their newfound skills. Some, like Vladimir Tartakovsky, took lessons at the center to improve his English. Once a dermatologist in Russia, he is now a medical interpreter who volunteers his time to teach others.
Janet Gottsman has struggled over the years to get her GED but now is looking forward to starting a college level course at Holyoke's Care Center in September. Jane Baatz, executive director of the Chicopee program, said waiting lists have swelled for GED classes and federal funding does not cover advanced English classes needed for many to move into open jobs or college classes. Among those concerned enough about the situation to visit with students that night was Thomas Moriarty, Hampden County Register of Probate and a member of the Hampden County Literacy Cabinet.
While adult education dollars still serve only a fraction of the need statewide, a new report by the National Commission on Adult Literacy calculates their public payoff. The net fiscal impact for federal, state, and local governments if 400,000 adults earn a high school diploma is estimated to be $2.5 billion per year. By 2020, if four million dropouts earn a high school diploma, that figure exceeds $25 billion annually.
The U.S. is now the only nation among 30 free-market countries where young adults are less educated than the previous generation, according to the June report. One out of three of our children don't graduate from high school and 88 million adults more than half the current workforce face educational or language barriers.
While Congressmen John W. Olver and Richard E. Neal are asked to turn the tide in Washington, lawmakers like Petrolati and Knapik are lending their powerful voices to this urgent need at home. Other literacy supporters have included State Reps. Stephen M. Brewer, D-Barre; Michael F. Kane, D-Holyoke; Todd M. Smola, R-Palmer; Benjamin Swan, D-Springfield; Mary S. Rogeness, R-Longmeadow; and State Sens. Gale D. Candaras, D-Wilbraham, and Stanley C. Rosenberg, D-Amherst.
In a previous career as managing editor of The Republican, I sometimes had to explain to angry lawmakers that public figures don't always get to escape criticism or hard hitting reporting. That comes with the territory. But what should also come with the territory is an appreciation when they take a stand that builds a better future for all of us.
So, to all the lawmakers who have supported literacy, thank you.
Marie P. Grady is liaison for the Literacy Works Project of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County Inc. She can be reached at 755-1367 or at mgrady@rebhc.org.


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