Reaching troubled young people through literacy

Far too many American young people, an estimated 3.8 million between the ages of 18 and 24, have profoundly weak reading skills, have dropped out of school, and are unemployed. Nationally, only about two-thirds of all students who enter 9th grade graduate four years later with regular high school diplomas.

Disturbingly, many youth who can’t read are winding up in prison. Though general studies have long connected illiteracy and criminal behavior, the numbers for youth are particularly dismal: 90% of the 11,000 youth in adult detention facilities nationwide have no more than a 9th grade education, and the average reading level nationally for ninth grade youth in correctional facilities is fourth grade. [1]

In California, three library literacy programs are taking action to turn this problem around. Through California Library Literacy Services (CLLS), the San Mateo County Library, the Stanislaus County Library and the City of Pomona Public Library, with the support of state leaders including Assembly Member Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) and State Librarian Susan Hildreth, are piloting a 3-year youth literacy program that serves our state’s most at-risk young people by giving them easy ways to navigate out of illiteracy.

In spring 2008 San Mateo County Library, Stanislaus County Library and City of Pomona Public Library joined the project whose focus is to attract and tutor English speaking young adults ages 16 -24 who are not attending school and are in danger of joining gangs, or committing crimes.

To connect with these young people, literacy staff in the 3 participating libraries will network and partner with community based organizations and social service agencies that serve that population. They will recruit and train tutors and volunteers who specifically want to work with young adults, and literacy staff will develop collections of instructional and support materials especially for this group.

The innovative 3-year literacy project supports 2007 legislation which Assembly Member Caballero authored to address the rising number of incarcerated youth without functional literacy skills. Although the original legislation received significant bi-lateral support with both the Senate and Assembly, the bill was ultimately vetoed by the Governor. State Librarian Susan Hildreth and Assembly member Caballero conferred and agreed that addressing youth literacy needs was important and that the CLLS infrastructure was well positioned to carry out this project. The Youth Literacy project will be funded in part by LSTA Federal funds and with local in-kind contributions.

For more information about the CLLS Youth Literacy project, please contact the California State Library at (916) 653-5217.

[1] Martin, N., & Halperin, S. (2006). Whatever It Takes: How Twelve Communities are Reconnecting Out-of-School Youth. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.

California Library Literacy Services literacy coordinator at Commerce Public Library “local hero” on local PBS station

Beatriz Sarmiento, California Library Literacy Services (CLLS) literacy coordinator at Commerce Public Library, was one of five “local heroes” honored on public television station KCET during Hispanic Heritage Month September 15 through October 1. California Library Literacy Services provides funds for adult literacy services to 106 public libraries to provide in their communities. Each library’s literacy coordinator runs the library’s literacy program.

Sarmiento says, “I am honored to be recognized for the work I do at the City of Commerce Public Library and am proud of what literacy programs do everyday in libraries across California.  It is remarkable to see the great things that can happen when you make the time to help adults and children improve their reading and writing skills.”

California State Library Literacy Programs Consultant Carla Lehn says, “Beatriz does an outstanding job. She’s making a difference in her own little corner of California.”

For more information about CLLS, please contact Carla Lehn at the California State Library at 
(916) 653-7743 or email at




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