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Southern States Join Forces To Upgrade Adults' Basic Skills

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Saying the South is "the nation's least educated region," 13 Southern states and Puerto Rico last week announced plans to form a partnership to upgrade the basic skills of adults in the region.

"Each state does work now in its own way, and we should not interfere with those efforts," Gov. Buddy Roemer of Louisiana said in announcing the partnership.

"It does seem necessary, however," he added, "to have some center, some place, some axis that would trade information and set the tone--some home where everybody could reach back and get some strength for literacy."

The initiative was announced during a meeting in New Orleans of the Southern Growth Policies Board, a public agency that examines economic-development issues facing the South.

The new "center" would be the first of its kind in the nation, according to its organizers.

Task-Force Report

The creation of a regional center was the primary recommendation of a report, also released last week, by a blue-ribbon panel appointed by the board to examine literacy efforts across the region. The Southern Regional Literacy Commission was chaired by Mr. Roemer and included business and education leaders as well as former governors from several Southern states.

According to the group's report, "Literacy Is Everybody's Business,'' the nation's greatest concentration of adults with low levels of skills in reading, writing, computation, and communication lives in the South.

In each of the 14 Southern states, the report said, at least 30 percent of all adults lack a high-school diploma. Of the remaining 36 states, by contrast, only three have such a high percentage of high-school dropouts.

"For most of these undereducated adults," the report states, "the old-style word 'illiterate' no longer applies, because most of them can read and write to some extent."

"Many, however, cannot apply the words and numbers they know to resolve the daily challenges they meet at the workplace or at home," the report concludes.

'A Unifying Agent'

The report cites statistics indicating sharp decreases over the past decade in the earnings of Southern males who had dropped out of school. For example, between 1973 and 1985, it states, the average earnings of male high-school dropouts in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and North and South Carolina declined by 35.5 percent in real dollars.

Moreover, the report says, efforts to recapture dropouts and provide them with basic-skills training are reaching only a fraction of those in need.

Volunteer literacy councils tutor only about 30,000 adults a year across the South, according to the report. And basic-education programs serve only 1 million of the region's 18.7 million dropouts.

The Southern Literacy Forum could address that problem, the report argues, by serving "as a unifying agent throughout the South to work with the region's diverse literacy programs and help to transform them into more than the sum of their individual efforts."

The new center, whose first-year costs have been targeted at $175,000, will be funded primarily by private businesses and foundations, according to Robert Donnan, a spokesman for the sgpb. Fund-raising efforts are under way.

The forum will be administered by the board for 12 to 18 months, after which the literacy group will spin off into a freestanding organization, Mr. Donnan said.

Involved in the literacy effort are: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

Copies of the report are available for $7.50 each from the Southern Growth Policies Board, P.O. Box 12293, Research Triangle Park, N.C., 27709; telephone (919) 941-5145.

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