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Central Georgians battle illiteracy

"I just don't believe in the word 'can't' because that's one word I ain't never seen in the Bible, 'can't,'" Estella Sams says.

The entrepreneur doesn't let much stop her, but for almost 60 of her 75 years, there's one thing that's slowed the Jeffersonville native down.

She left school in 1956, even though her mother told her not to.

"She tried to get me to go on to school, but no, I wanted to get married, so I stopped, " Sams said.

Like Sams, more than one out of every four Twiggs County residents struggles with literacy.

She runs her own catering business with help from her family, but says it kept her out of a traditional job.

"When you can't read and write, the boss man might tell you to go get a glass of bleach and I go get a glass of water. Because both of them look the same, but it's not the same. Because I can't read, so if I can read, I can see the difference in it," she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Assessment of Adult Literacy, Twiggs County has one of the worst adult illiteracy rates in the state at 27.7 percent.

That's the number of adults who read at a sixth-grade level or lower.

Twiggs' rate is 7 points higher than Bibb's and 14 points higher than Houston's.

Sams knew she wasn't alone and enrolled in Central Georgia Technical College's Adult Learning program.

It's a free service for 11 counties that focuses on teaching adults to read and helping them earn their GED.

"I think that Ms. Sams is one of my most committed and dedicated students," said Tiffany Spivey, the lead instructor at Central Georgia Technical College.

Tiffany Spivey, the program's lead instructor, teaches classes at the Twiggs County Board of Education.

Georgia's Department of Education calls the county a "hot zone" -- an area that needs extra attention.

So Twiggs County has a three-prong approach to improving literacy. That's a more aggressive strategy than surrounding counties.

Alpha Skills focuses on early development, Even Start promotes family literacy, and Central Georgia Tech's program is geared towards adults.

And Twiggs' literacy rate has improved. In 1992, the county had a 41-percent illiteracy rate.

"So there was a parent who had been special ed and did not know how to read at all, but she had a little boy and she say other parents reading in our even start center and she wanted to learn how to read," said Carolyn Aaron, a former Even Start teacher.

The programs have their success stories, but struggle to fill their classrooms.

The adult literacy class that Sams attends once had 15 people.

Now there are two. Some graduated, others dropped out, but educators say they aren't giving up.

"This is a committed community," said Glenda Eady, who recruits for Central Georgia Tech. "They know the value of a good story. They know the value of supporting their own and they know the value of an education and when they know it, they're going to participate."

Sams hopes to complete her GED herself by December.

And the family that she dropped out for is behind her 100 percent.

"They said, 'Mama, go ahead because if I was that old, I don't think I would go back to school now and try to get it,' but like I said, you got to have that determination, got to have faith in yourself that you can do these things," Sams said. "And don't let nobody talk you out your dreams. You know if you got a reality that you can do something, don't let people talk you out of it."

It's a can-do attitude she's passing on to her peers who are often too embarrassed to come through the door.

"That's just the fear in you telling you you can't do this or you can't do that, but you got to overcome fear and step out on faith," Sams said.

Central Georgia Technical College is also looking to start night time adult learning classes in Dry Branch.


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