As a kid growing up in Hanapepe, Kanani Santos never felt like he fit in at school. His hyperactivity confounded his teachers, who put him in special education classes. Even though Santos is part Hawaiian, he was often teased for his haole looks.

By the time Santos went to high school, drugs and alcohol became his pathway into social acceptance. He estimates he graduated at a seventh-grade reading level.

It wasn’t until Santos was in his mid-30s, a businessman with children of his own, that he decided he wanted to be a better reader. He started one-on-one tutoring through Hawaii Literacy, a statewide nonprofit, and kept it up for more than a year.

Santos, 43, says improving his reading helped him better read the bills, contracts and invoices necessary to grow his landscaping business. But the bigger benefit was intangible.

Hawaii Literacy Bookmobile parked near Kukui Street.
The Hawaii Literacy Bookmobile is part of the state’s effort to reach the many adults and children in the state who can’t read. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Doing something like that gave me more confidence in life,” he said. “A lot of people don’t really understand how difficult or how embarrassing it can be for a person to not be able to read.”

Nearly 200 years ago, literacy in the Hawaiian islands exceeded 90%, making the Hawaiian Kingdom one of the most literate nations in the world.

Today, one in six adults in Hawaii struggle with reading English, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  That means that they may be able to read simple texts but have trouble understanding more complex material.

Hawaii’s illiteracy rate is on par with the national average. But it’s a problem that advocates say has persisted in recent decades and is complicated by varying factors, ranging from chronic absenteeism at school driven by poverty and homelessness to a high percentage of students who don’t speak English at home.

There is also a stigma that prevents many from getting help. Advocates fear the coronavirus pandemic has only made the issue worse.

The consequences are severe. One Gallup study found that nationally, low literacy levels among adults might be costing the nation $2.2 trillion annually, or as much as 10% of the nation’s gross national product. And during the pandemic — amid concerns about the spread of misinformation — illiteracy is also a barrier to an informed citizenry.

“If you can’t help your children in school, the problem becomes intergenerational.” — Katherine Tuohy of Hawaii Literacy

Suzanne Skjold, who spent more than a decade working on literacy advocacy in Hawaii, says being able to read and write is “a cornerstone of social issues.”

Skjold met a mother who misread a medicine bottle and had to rush her daughter to the emergency room; a man who lost his health insurance in part because he couldn’t read notices he received; and two different people who got bench warrants because they couldn’t understand their traffic violation notices.

When we don’t address adult literacy, she said, “we really are deciding that it’s OK to not reach one in six adults with really critical information.”

The state rolled out a new plan to address literacy last month. The Hawaii State Literacy Plan is the result of more than a year of collaboration by more than 50 different organizations.

The document is short on details but contains many broad recommendations for educators, parents and public agencies to improve literacy, including best practices for teaching reading in classrooms and empowering caregivers to teach children how to read.

“We think of this as an aspirational plan, not like a project management that’s going to get executed with crossed t’s and dotted i’s,” says Stephen Schatz, executive director of Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education.

Schatz said the plan has been in the works for two years and helped the state Department of Education obtain a $50 million federal grant to improve literacy in grades K-12. There’s no specific funding for adult literacy efforts, but Schatz hopes the plan will inspire private donations.

“We’re hopeful that we will be able to galvanize support from the philanthropic community and keep an eye out for grants that will put a little bit of gas in the tank to make this a reality,” he said.

Amy Truong stands inside the Hawaii Literacy Bookmobile with books on shelves.
Amy Truong stands inside the Hawaii Literacy Bookmobile with books on shelves. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Advocates say it’s a good start toward raising awareness about the resources available to help improve reading skills of both children and adults — and toward removing the stigma.

“We see the problem of low literacy as a problem of access,” says Katherine Tuohy, who leads the adult literacy program at Hawaii Literacy. “If you can’t help your children in school, the problem becomes intergenerational.”

What Drives Illiteracy?

Adult literacy levels in Hawaii don’t appear to have budged over the past two decades, mirroring national trends.

One key factor is homelessness, according to Ryan Sanpei, program specialist at McKinley Community School for Adults, which offers adult education across multiple islands. Hawaii has the second-highest rate of homelessness in the nation, and housing insecurity can make it hard for kids to attend school consistently.

Even when they go to school, learning and disciplinary issues may prevent some children from learning while they’re there.

Literacy statistics also include people who don’t speak English, and Hawaii is home to a relatively high share of non-English-speaking residents.

One state study found about a quarter of Hawaii residents speak a language other than English at home, compared with one-fifth nationally. Immigrants make up more than half of the student body at the McKinley Community School for Adults, according to Helen Sanpei, the school’s principal.

The need for adult literacy education is particularly high among incarcerated people. Prior to the pandemic, Sanpei said the school worked with more than 2,100 adults in Hawaii helping them master reading and get their high school equivalencies, including many prisoners. That number has dropped by a third as coronavirus has proliferated in correctional facilities.

Pandemic Problems

Tuohy says the organization’s work at Halawa Correctional Facility came to a standstill due to the pandemic. The nonprofit’s other work has been affected too.

Pre-COVID-19, the nonprofit served about 300 adults per year across Oahu, Kauai and the Big Island through one-on-one tutoring. Moving that online hasn’t been easy. Tuohy estimates at least 80% of its clients struggled with technology once the pandemic hit and tutoring went virtual.

Lack of familiarity with technology isn’t the only problem. Many participants lost jobs and struggled to afford food. Attending tutoring sessions became less important.

“The literacy piece has been kind of usurped by the other fundamental needs the pandemic has created,” Tuohy said.

Despite the influx of public agencies and nonprofits scrambling to help, Tuohy fears the families that she serves will be hit hardest. She says those who can’t read a flyer about a free restaurant gift card or an application for rental assistance are the families who will recover the slowest.

“You’re going to be in an even more precarious position if you’re not able to access the information that can help you,” she said, adding that she hopes that people overcome the stigma around reading and seek help, because resources are available.

Santos from Hanapepe knows that stigma well, but says working on reading has helped take away that shame.

“Nothing is going to get better unless I try to make that effort,” he said.

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