Bushes honor success stories at Celebration of Reading
by Chris Umpierre
Lehigh Acres News Star
February 18, 2012
Like many migrant workers, Immokalee’s Maria Segura didn’t know how to read or speak English. Like her parents before her and their parents before them, the 43-year-old mother of four thought she would end up working the fields for the rest of her life.
Then she stepped into a Bush family literacy program, and everything changed.
A high school dropout, Segura learned to read, learned English, got her GED and in 2009 graduated from Southwest Florida College in Fort Myers. Today, she’s the lead preschool teacher at Immokalee’s Family Literacy Academy.
Former first lady Barbara Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush celebrated Segura’s accomplishment as well as the thousands of people their foundation has helped at Friday night’s 12th annual Celebration of Reading at the Hyatt Regency in Bonita Springs.
The Bush family’s foundation has raised $42 million for 960 family literacy programs, but in a Friday panel discussion at Florida Gulf Coast University, education experts agreed more needs to be done.
About 90 million Americans struggle with literacy, a statistic that hasn’t changed in more than a decade. About 30 million of those people are caregivers of children younger than 8, according to the National Center for Family Literacy. The center’s president, Sharon Darling, said educators should expand prekindergarten opportunities and utilize the advance of smartphones to reach illiterate adults.
“We can do all we can to improve our institutions and we can get excellent charter schools, but until we think about educating illiterate adults, it’s like pushing on a rope,” Darling said. “We might get there, but it’s going to be a longer route.”
Jeb Bush, who announced Friday that he and his sister, Doro Bush Koch, will be taking over the reins of the Bush literacy program from their mother, hopes to make literacy a national discussion. He pointed to a recent study that found the U.S. ranked 12th in the world in the number of college graduates ages 25 to 35. Fifteen years ago, the U.S. was ranked No. 1.
“The emerging world is realizing how important literacy is and they’re setting high standards and embracing education at warp speed. And we have complacency in our education,” Jeb Bush said.
Jeanne Allen, the president for the Center for Education Reform who participated in the FGCU forum, believes schools should cut down barriers and open their doors to parents. She said disadvantaged families, particularly those who don’t speak English, don’t know how to help their children learn how to read because they never got that training.
“Why are we closing up our institutions?” Allen said. “It’s like if you want to help your child, you need to get an appointment, sit in a small desk at the school and you better be literate.”
Darling believes the expansion of smartphones can give educators an avenue to reach illiterate adults. Social media can also help illiterate adults network and share ideas. She explained a program where the Muppet character Elmo calls children with the letter of the day. Excited to receive a phone call from Elmo, the child then spends the rest of the day talking about the letter with their parents.
“TV is there, too, to use to reach people, and we have to make the best use of it,” Darling said.
Greg Kincaid, one of three authors highlighted at the Celebration of Reading, said the battle to fight illiteracy needs generals, sergeants and a slew of ground troops.
“At the end of the day it’s about finding a kid and reading to him and then paying for books to get to children,” said Kincaid, who wrote the best-selling novel, “A Dog Named Christmas.”
Prekindergarten education has shown to improve the learning capacities of children, Darling said. Segura, the migrant worker turned teacher, said she walked into the Family Literacy Academy of Immokalee because she couldn’t find a preschool for her 3-year-old son. Anthony. The academy taught both Segura and her son.
Dee Siemianowski, the program manager for the Family Literacy Academy of Immokalee, said she has about 30 migrant families enrolled in the program. There’s no cost to attend the program, which runs from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The program is supported by the Collier County Housing Authority.
Segura said it wasn’t easy to attend the program and learn how to read and speak English.
“I had to raise four kids, take care of the home and go to school,” Segura said. “But it was worth it. I wanted my children to see that their mother can accomplish anything in this world, and that education is the way to do it.”