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Among an audience dressed in suits and pumps at a D.C. Council hearing last Thursday, El Salvador native Francisco Ferrufino sat decked out in a black chef’s uniform.

Ferrufino, who came to the U.S. eight years ago and now works as executive chef at Meridian Pint, embodied a success in the midst of the conversation on adult illiteracy in the District. The meeting, hosted by Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmember David Grosso, provided possible solutions for the city’s adult literacy problem, which a few witnesses said is fueled by a racial divide.

“[D.C. is] home to the most educated and the least educated, the wealthiest and poorest,” said Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools. “The academic achievement gap between its affluent white residents and its residents of color from impoverished backgrounds is the greatest such gap in the nation.”

Mendelson highlighted the magnitude of the city’s literacy issue at the beginning of the hearing.

“A 2002 synthetic estimate indicates that 37 percent of adults age 16 and over in the District of Columbia operate at the lowest defined level of literacy or below basic,” said Mendelson, citing the National Assessment of Adult Literacy. People who function at this low literacy level may have trouble with completing necessary tasks such as adding numbers or locating streets on a map, according to the same report.

Many of the witnesses at the event offered similar solutions for the problem: decrease the cost of public transportation for adult students and issue a state diploma for students who graduate with a GED.

Providing money for public transportation would lower a financial burden experienced by most adults who want to attend school, witnesses said. But Mendelson diffused some hope for a transportation program for adult students, one that many witnesses want modeled after Kids Ride Free.

“Where do we get the money?” Mendelson asked. “If we add another $9 million to public transit subsidies, that’s $9 million that’s taken away from something else.”

However, Mendelson voiced support for a state diploma initiative, and raised questions to the President of the State Board of Education Jack Jacobson who approached the solution with skepticism.  

“If school is satisfactory and [kids] want to be in school, they’re not going to be saying, ‘Oh hey, it’s quicker for me to just go home and work on a computer and not see any of my friends, and I will just do the GED,’” Mendelson said in response to Jacobson’s hesitation toward the proposal.

Thirteen states currently give state diplomas to GED program graduates. Supporters of the movement argue that employers see state diplomas as more valuable than a GED certificate, which stigmatizes high school dropouts and discourages them from engaging in alternative education programs.

Councilmember Vincent Orange, who was not present at the roundtable, introduced the State Education Office Diploma Amendment Act of 2015 in June. If passed, the act would mandate the State Superintendent of Education to sign off on diplomas for GED graduates. A hearing on the bill has not been scheduled.

The State Board of Education considered a similar proposition last December that would have offered flexible alternatives for students to receive a diploma, including GED students, but the proposition was tabled.

Despite transportation issues and the current lack of a state diploma program, several student witnesses appeared hopeful in their education, including Ferrufino, who speaks fluent English after taking ESL classes at a charter school in 2008.

Ferrufino took a job as a dishwasher when he arrived in the U.S. Now as Meridian Pint’s executive chef, he is taking preparation classes to earn a GED and enroll in a culinary arts school, something he must do to achieve his dream of opening his own restaurant, he said.

“I started as a dishwasher, now I’m making a salary,” Ferrufino said.

Photo of Phil Mendelson by Darrow Montgomery