Monday, July 30, 1990

San Diego Public Library - M.A., but he couldn't read 'til now

M.A., but he couldn't read 'til now
San Diego Union: June 30, 1990 by Angela Lau

Steve Pilling had made up his mind he was going to walk through the door of Carson Elementary School in Linda Vista, but then he balked.

"I was scared to death," he recalls.

Standing 6 feet, 2 inches tall and looking spiffy in suit and tie, he was faced with this decision -- continue to hide his inability to read complex words, or go into the grade school to learn the skill -- at the age of 30.

Pilling was, after all, the owner of a flourishing telecommunications consulting business in Tierrasanta and had a master's degree in business administration.

"That was the hardest door to cross," Pilling said at a READ/San Diego ceremony yesterday in which he was honored as the best student of the year by the adult literacy program.

Pilling hesitated 20 minutes, but eventually entered the school and met his first tutor.

Today, Pilling -- who often had asked his wife to write business proposals for him -- can read this story about himself, whereas before, he relied on radio and television news to stay informed.

"I never believed I could do this," Pilling said. "I was afraid my clients would drop me as their consultant when they learned I couldn't read. But instead, they applauded me in a meeting when they heard about it.

"I'm not embarrassed about it anymore. And I hope those who can't read will come out of the closet."

Pilling is a "classic example" of the failure of the education system, said one of his tutors, Diane Lin.

He slipped through Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., graduating with a 3.0 grade-point average there, and an MBA program at National University in San Diego, graduating from there with a 3.5 average. He did so by avoiding teachers and professors who test students with essay questions, asking fellow students for help and starting to research term papers "way ahead of time" to make up for his slowness.

"The program's done so much for his self-confidence," said Pilling's wife, Patti. "I'm so grateful."

Also honored at yesterday's ceremony, which marked the second anniversary of READ/San Diego, was Tutor of the Year Milton Dudeck, a 70-year-old retired engineer; and Volunteer of the Year Conchita Gutierrez, a 64-year-old homemaker.

Wednesday, May 30, 1990

Glendale Library :: Expansion of Literacy Aid Sought

Daily News: May 25, 1990 by Laurence Darmiento

In an effort to break what experts say can be a cycle of illiteracy, Glendale officials said Thursday they will try to expand Glendale's adult literacy program to target students who have young children.

City library officials are seeking an $18,500 grant from the California State Library so they can teach parents in the program how to encourage their children to read, said Georganna Ahlfors, coordinator of the adult reading program.

"Studies have found most people who have a reading problem . . . don't have a reading ethic, because their families don't value that," Ahlfors said. ''We are trying to intervene in childhood, so that their children don't have the same problem."

The program would target parents with children five years or younger, she said. It would try to teach the parents how to read to their children, how to pick out books for them and, more generally, how reading can be pleasurable.

"We're doing a little of everything," she said.

At its Tuesday meeting, the City Council unanimously approved a request by Library Director Susan Curzon to apply for the grant.

Ahlfors said the program would include classes to teach them how to read to their children and workshops aimed at both parents and children. In addition, professional storytellers would be hired to ply their craft, demonstrating to parents how to tell an entertaining story while showing children the value of storytelling.

Ahlfors said the $18,500 would pay for the salary of a part-time program coordinator for one year, along with the fees charged by the storytellers and other incidental expenses. She said it also includes the cost of buying up to six children's books for each family.

"We want them to start their own libraries," she said.

The three-year-old literacy program currently serves 110 adults, 31 of whom have children five years old or younger, according to a report prepared by Curzon for Tuesday's council meeting. Volunteer tutors serve each of the adults.

Ahlfors said the decision to apply for the state funds was not made earlier than this year because library officials have been concentrating their efforts on expanding the original program, which served 35 adults last January.

"Our program has reached enough maturity that we can branch off," she said.

If the state library approves the grant, the program would start sometime later this year, according to Curzon..

Ahlfors said she hopes that even when the grant runs out the program will continue through volunteer efforts. But she said it would be difficult to start such a program without a paid coordinator.

Carlsbad Library - He now knows the ABCs of life - Teacher/businessman overcomes his illiteracy

He now knows the ABCs of life
Teacher/businessman overcomes his illiteracy
Evening Tribune: May 18, 1990 by Tom Cushman

SINCE being profiled in the sports pages of a newspaper presumes some affiliation with athletics, this much can be said for John Corcoran. A scholarship basketball player at Texas Western (now UTEP) in the late '50s, John is remembered on that campus both for on-court achievement and the fact that his roommate was Charlie Brown, the first black ever to dribble for a major university in the South.

That John is remembered for his academic record is unlikely. He did leave El Paso with a degree -- no stock accomplishment for varsity athletes, then or now.

The remainder of John Corcoran's classroom data is standard for any successful educator. There are elementary and high school diplomas plus graduate work, most of the latter having been done at San Diego State.

Once certified, Corcoran would teach in high schools of the Carlsbad-Oceanside community for 18 years. Concurrent with that service was a gradual move into real estate acquisition and development; this eventually would mushroom into a permanent occupation. At present, Corcoran's company (Brebon) is completing construction of Fire Mountain Estates, an arrangement of $300,000-plus homes in Oceanside's southern corridor.

There was one departure from the norm. While doing all of the above, John Corcoran could neither read nor write. John was what is known as a functional illiterate.

The Corcoran story is offered as a companion to Sunday's Trib 10, which is about running and walking and festivaling, but -- in a less carefree sense -- is a vehicle intended to increase public awareness of a lingering national disgrace.

Some 42 years after entering our public school system, John Corcoran -- through the resources of an Adult Literacy Program at the Carlsbad Library -- finally learned to read.

One of the first things he learned from reading was that his dilemma was not unique. Illiteracy is a trap in which 20 percent of the U.S. population is snared. "Every spring, a million youngsters graduate from high school with reading skills that are eighth grade or below," Corcoran was saying on a recent afternoon.

John was one of the "belows." He estimates that his reading level during college was that of a second grader.

Level of intellect was not the problem. To accomplish what John Corcoran has obviously requires a superior mind.

Aptitude for reading did not suddenly arrive in the middle of the night.

Like so many others, John Corcoran was victimized by physical malfunctions and a system that tends to tolerate only the normal.

That he didn't begin talking until age 3 should have been a signal. There was an auditory difficulty (John can't hear certain letters). There is some dyslexia. None of this had been diagnosed, however, when John took a seat in the first grade.

"Back then, a child who picked up a fork with his left hand might have that arm tied behind him to force use of the right," Corcoran says. "Mind-set was that rigid.

"People like myself are not going to learn the traditional way. We're capable of the same things, but we're wired differently."

When John had early difficulty with certain reading fundamentals, he was placed in what he refers to as "the dumb row," there to remain throughout his elementary schooling.

"I didn't feel dumb," he says, "but over a period of time the system persuaded me that my brain couldn't be taught to read. This can be devastating to a person's self-esteem.

"We learn by being honest about what we don't know. When it's suggested up front that you're dumb, honesty is discouraged."

By the time he reached junior high, John Corcoran had decided his only choice was to live with illiteracy and disguise it as best he could. His degree of success is in itself an indictment of the educational process that abused him.

"I couldn't learn our word system," he says, "but the school system was easy to figure. It's a wide-open barn door. If you insist on attending, you'll graduate. "How? When you're dealing with a stacked deck, what you do is mark some cards."

While in high school, John dated the valedictorian. Another girlfriend was a whiz in accounting. From both, plus other classmates, John mined information. No one even suspected the reason. By the time he entered college, John had developed math skills. Symbols, he could read.

Since his only means of communication was oral, he did well in classes where the verbal was emphasized. He scheduled more courses than needed; those with testing procedures that emphasized reading and writing he then dropped.

After speaking recently at a literacy fund-raiser in Baton Rouge, La., John was approached by a college professor who huffed, "You'd never have gotten through one of my classes."

Said John: "I'd never have taken one."

When necessary, John cheated. "Whatever it took," he now says. "By my junior year at Western, I knew I would get my degree.

"Graduate school actually was easier. There is less structure."

By most accounts, John became an above-average high school teacher. He limited his course range, concentrating on those in which verbal communication would suffice. Any necessary reading or secretarial work was assigned to students.

"Many of the things a good teacher should do, I was forced to do. I always was early for my classes, always was willing to spend extra time with the kids. That way I could pick their brains.

"We taught each other."

John Corcoran had been gone from the classroom for several years when he finally made public his illiteracy. He was by then a success in the field of residential development; still, a sense of inadequacy was his daily companion.

"Literate society has no idea what the inability to read and write is like," he was saying the other day. "You're running on fumes all the time."

Entering the Carlsbad Library program at age 48, John was tutored by a retired lady named Eleanor, age 65. "She wasn't an educator by trade," John says, "but she became the second-grade teacher I never had.

"For the first 30 days, I thought it was going to be the same disappointment all over again. Eleanor wouldn't give up, though, so neither did I. And, one day she pulled the switch. The dark room I'd been living in all those years suddenly was filled with light."

John Corcoran smiles. The sense of accomplishment runs deep, as well it should.

"It's hard work to teach people like me," he says. "The good news is that it can be done."