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Former first lady pushes education
Shirley Miller pic
Shirley Miller chats with Ron Jackson, Technical College System of Georgia commissioner, at Unicoi State Park Lodge near Helen. - photo by Scott Rogers DCN Regional Staff

If there’s a time to push forward with adult literacy programs, it’s now, Georgia’s former first lady Shirley Miller told a group of educators March 23.


During a poor economy, education and literacy should be the top priorities to prepare Georgia’s workforce, she said.


“Literacy is a jobs issue as much as an education issue,” she said during a retreat for the state’s Certified Literate Community Program at Unicoi State Park in Helen.


With the encouragement of her husband, then-Gov. Zell Miller, she created the program in 1990 under the Technical College System of Georgia as an initiative to create nonprofit adult education sites across the state.


“Zell first mentioned this in his first State of the State address in January 1991 as we looked at the high dropout rate,” Shirley Miller said. “It was time to act and to link what happens in the classroom to what happens in the family and community.”


Calling his wife “his potent weapon” against illiteracy in Georgia, Zell Miller asked her to travel around the state and encourage public-private partnerships to launch literacy and GED programs.


Some governments were hesitant to set aside budget dollars for literacy programs, but then Georgia’s lottery-funded program came along.


“Hope. What a beautiful word,” Shirley Miller said. “The day I first explained what the HOPE grant would do to help people get into technical colleges and universities, I was at a GED graduation, and the audience was on its feet in a standing ovation.”


That was the moment Shirley Miller knew the state’s literacy programs could go far.


“I knew HOPE had arrived for these families and others like them,” she said. “Not long after, we were visiting computer labs and state-of-the-art literacy labs and setting yearly goals for the numbers of graduates we hoped to reach. I got far more out of this than what I put in for the eight years of this 20-year program.”


Though the recent overhaul of HOPE will hurt, it was necessary, she added.


“We had to make the adjustments because we’ve never seen an economy like this since the Great Depression,” she said. “If no one had heard of the original HOPE and saw this new program, they would still think it’s the greatest thing to come down the pipe for students. Our program is still the envy of the country.”


Technical colleges are also looking for ways to adapt to the changes, said Ron Jackson, commissioner of the Technical College System of Georgia.


“Because of the high enrollment numbers, the cost of college and the cost of pre-K, it’s inevitable that there would come a day when the demands would be greater than the revenues,” he said. “Students will have to work harder, and we’re looking for innovative ways to help students achieve their dreams. The legacy that Gov. Miller gave is still alive and well.”


Shirley Miller’s luncheon speech was a highlight in the two-day retreat for literacy program representatives to learn more about building community partnerships, developing fundraising programs and enhancing grant writing.


Several representatives talked about additional programs they’ve been able to fund this year through local businesses, including reading groups and family literacy nights.


Though budget struggles continue to strain literacy programs, Shirley Miller hopes they will continue to grow.


“We may face new challenges, but can there be any greater work than this?” she said.