Illiterate Mesa? City pushes back against poor literacy ranking - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Illiterate Mesa? City pushes back against poor literacy ranking

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Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 6:45 am

Mesa is one of the least literate big cities in the U.S., according to a study that found only five communities have a citizenry less interested in reading.

That makes Mesa the 70th most literate city, according to an annual report by Central Connecticut State University that evaluated communities with 250,000 or more residents.

The study measured the number of bookstores per 10,000 residents, newspaper circulation, library resources, periodical publishing, educational attainment and Internet resources.

The university claims the literacy rankings serve as a barometer of cultural and social health, and that the study should spur a discussion in communities that have poor rankings.

Mayor Scott Smith said he welcomes a conversation - just not about the survey.

It doesn't measure the quality of media centers in public schools, the city's push to boost college attendance or an initiative to bring private colleges to the city, he said.

"I'm angry that studies like this tend to focus on things that have no value. They don't create good discussions because they're based on incorrect information or data and they tend to direct attention to the people doing the study," Smith said. "I'm not attempting to gloss over our challenges. From Day 1, we have worked hard to recognize where we have shortcomings and are working to fix those, not react to silly studies."

Mesa was in a multi-city tie for last place in the categories of newspapers and Internet. However, the organizations that measure newspaper readership and Internet don't have any data for Mesa and several other cities. In those cases, the cities were ranked last.

University spokesman Mark McLaughlin acknowledged the problem with the lack of data. He said the most important thing to take from the survey is whether communities with low rankings try to improve what's available to the public.

He noted El Paso, Texas, has been near the bottom for years but has started an initiative to increase reading.

"This year, I've seen at least two editorials picking up on the survey, saying ‘OK, enough is enough. We need to be investing in the literacy of our citizens,'" McLaughlin said.

All the factors that contribute to literacy took a blow from the troubled economy, he said. But a community's wealth or education levels don't translate directly to their cultural health, McLaughlin said.

The study found St. Louis has the 70th lowest family income, but the 8th highest literacy. Cleveland has the second-lowest income but is the 13th most literate city.

Mesa has acknowledged a problem with its college graduation rates. Only 8 percent of those under 26 have a college degree or technical certificate. The city is trying to double that with Mesa Counts on College, one of four programs in the nation to get a $3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The two-year -old effort is getting children interested in college at a younger age, said Amy Trethaway, a city employee with Mesa Counts on College. The program shows the community is doing what it can to improve education but the study doesn't give credit for that.

"I think when you look at all the areas, some are within control of the city and some have to do with the economy, but we definitely have a commitment to the educational piece," Trethaway said.

Smith said the city laid out its shortcomings when applying for the Gates grant.

"They said we were probably more honest than any other community they had worked with in accepting that we have problems," he said. "I think that's a strength in this community."

He noted Mesa is recruiting private colleges to expand the kind of degrees or technical training offered locally. Benedictine University of suburban Chicago has announced plans for a Mesa campus and the city is in advanced negotiations with several other unnamed institutions.

McLaughlin said many communities that end up with poor rankings begin taking some kind of action. He said Mesa's college initiatives are the type of action the study hopes to produce.

"I see that having a big impact on everything," he said. "You're going to have more Internet access, more bookstores, more higher education, more libraries. You'll just have more people who are engaged in reading."

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