For 10 years now, every third-grader in Catoosa County Public Schools has received a brand new dictionary from Catoosa Citizens for Learning (CCL), which has given away 8,000 dictionaries to date. Students also receive a special pen with their graduation year imprinted on it.

CCL director Shirley Smith says the center implemented the program because third grade is a critical year. “Third grade seems to be a hard year for reading,” she says. “The kids love the dictionaries.

“They have a lot more in them than just words and definitions,” she continued. “There are maps, a list of presidents, a lot of social studies-type things.”

Catoosa Citizens for Literacy does not just drop the dictionaries off at the schools, says Darla Crawford, CCL education coordinator.

She says that CCL and Catoosa County Family Collaborative coordinator Phil Ledbetter present the dictionaries and pens to the children, Ledbetter dressed in a cap and gown, and impress upon them the importance of applying themselves to their studies and graduating.

“Phil is great with the kids,” says Crawford. “He makes them laugh and gets them excited.”

Crawford says the children begin looking through their dictionaries immediately and often find the sign language alphabet in the back and start spelling words with their fingers.

As has become their tradition, the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners has declared September “Literacy Month.”

“In 1995,” says Smith, “the Chamber of Commerce learned that over 36% of the people in Catoosa County lacked a high school diploma or GED. That was alarming and affected our ability to grow and attract business and industry in the county.”

Smith and others set about remedying the situation. With a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the newly formed Catoosa Citizens for Literacy built a facility where they offered GED classes. Five years later, they had outgrown their space.

In 2005, thanks to Sen. Jeff Mullis (District 53), Rep. Jay Neal (District 1) and Gov. Sonny Perdue, CCL received a $500,000 grant. They expanded their building and bought a bus to transport those who have no vehicle. This year, CCL bought a second bus.

What has also expanded over the years is what CCL offers. Smith says when they started out, the cost to take the GED test was $25. “Now it’s $160,” she says, “and we pay that for people.”

CCL also offers computer classes, English language instruction, computer literacy and more. Free childcare is available for those who need it.

All learning materials, computers and teachers are provided by Georgia Northwestern Technical College. CCL pays for the building, GED tests, childcare, transportation and other things.

Smith says the rate of those without a high school diploma or GED has dropped to 18% based on the last Census data and may be lower than that now.

“The hardest thing about working toward a GED,” says Smith, “is the first step – just walking through the door.”

Smith says that anyone seeking help to earn a GED or to learn English will find the CCL learning center a warm and welcoming place dedicated to the success of everyone who takes that first hard step.

Tamara Wolk is a reporter for The Catoosa County News in Ringgold, Ga., and Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga.

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