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5 questions with Dorothy Shinafelt
Dorothy Shinafelt is the director of the Gainesville/Hall County Alliance for Literacy. - photo by Tom Reed

Alliance for Literacy Spelling Bee

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Pearce Auditorium, Brenau University, 500 Washington St., Gainesville

How much: $5 adults, $2 ages 12 and younger; $5 to participate in audience spelling contest

Contact info:


About Dorothy Shinafelt

Age: What Southern gentleman would ask such a question?

Hometown: Grew up in the Tampa Bay area

Length of time in Gainesville: 15 years in August

Education: Jefferson High School and University of South Florida, both in Tampa

Occupation: Executive director of the Gainesville/Hall County Alliance for Literacy

Most interesting job: My current job at the Alliance has been the most diverse job I have had. However, being a mother has been the most meaningful.

Family information: Married to husband Terry for 30 years with two sons Ross, 27, and Justin, 24, as well as two cats.

Dorothy Shinafelt leads an organization that does much more than just teach people to read. Through its programs, the Gainesville/Hall County Alliance for Literacy helps people become more educated so they can get better jobs, make more money and, ultimately, help provide better skilled workers for local businesses. The alliance’s biggest fundraiser, the annual Spelling Bee for Literacy, is Tuesday night.

Today, The Times asks Shinafelt five questions about the alliance’s impact on our region and about the origins of the ever-popular spelling bee.

1. How has the Alliance for Literacy made a difference in the lives of Hall County residents?

In December 1994, Hall County became the 23rd community to be certified as a Certified Literate Community Program participant in Georgia, a statewide initiative to decrease substantially the numbers of undereducated adults in the community, and the Alliance is considered the literacy contact for Gainesville-Hall County.

Since then 47,819 students have been served and 4,163 GEDs have been attained. High school graduation has a tangible impact not only on the individual who achieves this milestone or fails, but also on the community in which he or she lives.

Those students who do not complete high school are likely to face problems in three major areas: reduced income, unemployment, and barriers to future employment and educational opportunities. These problems, when multiplied by the number of individuals in our community who have not completed high school, have a compounded effect on the community as a whole.

These individuals are responsible for reduced revenue to local businesses, increased cost to support unemployed and underemployed citizens, and the need to import college and technical school graduates from areas outside of Hall County in order to fill higher-requirement local jobs.

Our local economy further suffers when we have a less-educated populace, as it is more difficult to attract new business investment. Research indicates many measurable outcomes relating to students successfully getting a high school diploma or GED.

According to a recent publication from Georgia Partnership for Excellence, “Compared with high school non-completers, high school graduates experience lower rates of teen pregnancy, lower rates of unemployment, fewer instances of compromised health, and lower mortality rates.”

These reductions have a positive impact for our entire community. High school graduates are less likely to commit crimes, use public services such as food stamps or housing assistance, or need to rely on government health care.

2. Is technology helping or hindering literacy?

In theory, the use of technology in our programs is helpful. We utilize a wonderful software program with our lowest level readers that produces amazing results. Since switching to computer-based GED testing, the pass rate has increased.

Since most of our students are between 16 and 24, they have a great working knowledge of computers and expect to have access to up-to-date technology. However, the downside is the expense to stay current and to make costly repairs should a computer, smartboard or other hardware/software systems falter.

Personally, I fight some technology. I just do not get the same feeling reading an e-book as I do curling up on my sofa with the real thing. I am afraid that the printed word will soon be completely replaced and books, newspapers, magazines will cease to exist.

3. What role has the Adult Learning Center played in helping people become more literate?

The ALC provides free educational programs for adults 16 and older who have not graduated from high school or whose native language is not English. Services provided include literacy instruction, basic skills, GED preparation, English as a Second Language and citizenship classes.

Functional illiteracy adversely affects economic status, employment opportunities, even voting behavior, since those with low literacy skills cannot fully participate in or make informed choices about a free, democratic society.

Low literacy leads to a more divided society along both racial and socioeconomic lines. According to the American Medical Association, the inability to read and understand basic medical instructions “may be an important barrier to receiving proper health care.”

Consequently, low literacy remains a silent disability. Education is the only true means of breaking the cycle of poverty in our community. The literacy programs provided to our students have a dramatic impact on their abilities to reach their personal goals, both educationally and socially.

We know that children raised by an illiterate head of household are more likely to become dropouts as well. According to the National Institute for Literacy, “As the educational level of adults improves, so do their children’s successes in school. Helping low-literate adults improve their basic skills has a direct and measurable impact on both the education and quality of life of their children.”

Research indicates that investment in the early years is the most effective way to improve students’ success in school. According to the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, “Parents remain the best and most consistent source of rich early learning experiences. Interaction such as daily reading to/with children, exposure to educational games and media, the arts, and normal, frequent conversations with adults are excellent sources of stimulation and learning.”

4. What is the biggest challenge being faced by the Alliance for Literacy?

For the families and individuals of Hall County to be stable and self-sufficient, we must offer them access to educational opportunities to improve their lives. Very low-level students continue to be a challenge. Twenty-five percent of students served in fiscal year 2012 were at a zero-to-4th grade level when entering the program. It is often difficult to know if a low reader has a learning disability, low IQ, or behavior problems that are keeping him from learning.

We are hoping to find a source of free testing for the students. Our students are also facing the very real challenge of finding the funds to pay for their GED test since the cost increased to $160 last July.

5. How did the idea of the spelling bee get started?

The successful Alliance for Literacy Spelling Bee, which has raised over $300,000 to support adult literacy, was based on a typographical error.

Lou Fockele, the retired publisher of The Times in Gainesville and a longtime advocate of adult literacy, saw in a national publication for newspaper publishers an article about a Seattle newspaper raising $50,000 for adult literacy with a spelling bee.

He sent the information to Betty Mansfield, then the president of the Alliance. The Alliance liked the idea but believed they needed someone with event-planning experience to put the bee together. With Lou’s and Jean’s help, the Alliance hired Sarah Cooper to help put the event together.

In June 1991, Betty and Sarah flew to Seattle to confer with the publisher and public relations manager of the newspaper. They spent one day and most of the next talking to various people who were involved, including the executive director of the Seattle adult literacy group.

The more they heard, the more confused they became on how they had grossed $50,000. At the last meeting with the public relations manager, Sarah finally asked, “But how did you raise $50,000?” The PR manager replied, “$50,000? We raised $5,000.” Turns out the editor of the article in the publishers’ magazine had failed to correct the error.

For the next 10 months they and all the members of the Alliance and not a few community leaders plotted and planned, begged and borrowed. In April 1992, the first Spelling Bee for Literacy was held.

With 16 teams competing (each one paying $1,000 for the privilege) plus ticket sales, the final net was $20,000.

Lou and Jean Fockele were the godparents of the Spelling Bee. Moreover, no one enjoyed telling the story of the typo more than they did. They were the inspiration for the Spelling Bee, its biggest supporters and the happiest for the bee’s success. Like so many organizations in North Georgia, the Gainesville-Hall County Alliance for Literacy owes its success to the philanthropic spirit and solid good sense of Lou and Jean.

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