Blog: Bob Guenzel

Bob Guenzel is the Administrator for Washtenaw County. A U-M Law School graduate and resident of Ann Arbor, Bob has been deeply involved in local community organizations, sits on several boards and is currently the Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors for Ann Arbor SPARK. He will be writing about the potential opportunities our current economic downturn provides us, as well as leadership and literacy in Washtenaw County.

Post No. 2: Literacy in Washtenaw County


27,000 of your neighbors and mine face severe challenges in reading or writing. That translates to a rate of illiteracy above 12% in Washtenaw County.

More than what it says about our community, think for a minute about what it means to those individual people. It's hard to calculate the limiting fear. Each day, unsure of street signs in any neighborhood but their own, people who can't read don't want to venture much beyond their own neighborhood. At home, they find ingenious ways to avoid reading with their children, or helping them with homework that's presented on the written page. At their workplace, they need to hide their illiteracy by staying in a very low-paying job – safe from discovery. Even getting a Driver's License – passing the written test or being able to read certain road signs can prove too much.

The toll illiteracy takes on self-esteem, on families, on sustainable employment – on all of us – can be devastating. It should come as no surprise that illiteracy rates are tied to poverty rates. Seventy percent of adult welfare recipients in the United States function at the lowest level of literacy.

Part of that 27,000 are those older children who managed to get by in school until finally dropping out completely. The dropout rates for local high schools average about 12%, with some districts and individual schools at much higher rates. Add to that the fact that in Washtenaw County, nearly 15% of households do not speak English in the home.

Nationally, adult literacy levels have remained virtually unchanged in the past 10 years. Locally, we have seen no evidence that the cycle of illiteracy has been broken in Washtenaw County. But, locally, we're doing something.

As we have before with issues like homelessness in our County (The Blueprint to End Homelessness); with shoring up the digital divide (Wireless Washtenaw), and with empowering our teenage youth (Washtenaw Area Teens for Tomorrow) I was able to convene an extraordinary group of local leaders who care very much about breaking the cycle of illiteracy in Washtenaw County. The Washtenaw County Literacy Coalition formed almost a year ago, with an approving resolution from the County Board of Commissioners in July of 2007.

This group is comprised of 30 members: 20 representing academia, libraries, business, not-for-profit, and faith-based organizations; 8 representing Washtenaw County Departments, and 2 Washtenaw County Commissioners. (See the list of Coalition members below.)

Let me tell you, this is as very motivated group. You can see it in the work that has already been accomplished within one year. Two capacity building grants are helping to enable the "Blueprint to End Illiteracy" and a follow-up work plan. In this County we are blessed with the presence of a lead agency on this issue –
Washtenaw Literacy. For more than 35 years this volunteer-based organization has provided free literacy instruction customized to the needs of adults in our county.

The Coalition is the strongest collaborative effort to address illiteracy ever implemented in Washtenaw County. The Blueprint to End Illiteracy holds great promise for our community in that it: provides early and sustained intervention, incorporates innovative solutions based upon best practices, reduces duplication of services, facilitates collaboration among partner organizations, leverages funding sources, and will achieve clear outcomes. This collaboration has the flexibility of vision and the high-level support necessary to succeed.

The Literacy Coalition

Bill Abernethy / Washtenaw Community College
Anya Abramzon / Jewish Family Services
Cara Belkofer / Reach Out & Read
Jesse Bernstein / Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce
Donna DeButts / Ypsilanti District Library
Pastor Phil / Ferrell Ministerial Alliance
Bob Guenzel / Washtenaw County Administration, Chair
Leah Gunn / Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners
James Hawkins / Ypsilanti Public Schools
Freman Hendrix / Eastern Michigan University
Diane Keller / Ypsilanti Chamber of Commerce
Julie McFarland / McNaughton and Gunn
Verna McDaniel / Washtenaw County Administration
Bill Miller / Washtenaw Intermediate School District
Sian Owen-Cruise / Washtenaw Success by Six Initiative
Josie Parker / Ann Arbor District Library
Keith Peters / Washtenaw County Workforce Development Board
Joanne Pierson / University of Michigan
Ronnie Peterson / Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners        
Chris Roberts / Washtenaw Literacy
Mike Scholl Community / Collaborative of Washtenaw County
Peg Talburtt / James A. & Faith Knight Foundation
Sandy Williams / Family Learning Institute
To be determined / Washtenaw Association of School Boards
Ellen Clement / Washtenaw County Dept. of Public Health
Patricia Horne / McGee Head Start
Trenda Rusher / Employment Training and Community Services
Kerry Sheldon / Washtenaw County Administration
Mary Udoji / Library Learning Resource Center
Nancy Thelen /  MSU Extension