(Fox Baltimore) – Recent Project Baltimore reports have exposed how some Baltimore City high school students are far behind in their education. Now, one woman is sharing her story as a Baltimore City student who graduated from high school without learning how to read.

Debora Prestileo is 41 years old. She’s a 1999 graduate of Patterson High School, who 23 years later, still struggles to read.

“It’s embarrassing sometimes,” Prestileo told Project Baltimore. “Going into stores, like if I go into Walmart, and I’ve got to ask for help. Sometimes people laugh at me.”

Prestileo has a learning disability, caused in part by a hearing impairment that wasn’t addressed until recently. She’s partially deaf, which severely impacted her ability to learn.

“My life is hard. When you can’t read your mail, you can’t read nothing, it’s hard,” she said.

Prestileo attended Baltimore City Public Schools for 12 years. She says she was given an IEP, or individualized education program, designed for students with learning disabilities. With an IEP, she should have been given extra help, tutoring, specialized lessons. Instead, she says she was given the answers.

“Some teachers would give me, like if we’re taking a test, they would give me the paper, so I can write the answers down, so I wouldn’t fail the class. And I’m like, ‘well, that’s not teaching me, that’s just helping me cheat,’” Prestileo said.

According to her high school transcript, Prestileo got a 74 in English her freshman year. In 10th grade, she earned a 78, a C+. By 11th grade, her English score dropped to a 62. Her senior year of high school, she passed English with a 68, though she couldn’t read her assignments.

“They passed me. They just passed me along to get me out of the school,” Prestileo told Project Baltimore. “They knew I didn’t know how to read. They knew I didn’t know how to do a lot of stuff. But they didn’t care.”

Prestileo earned a certificate of completion in June of 1999 and walked across the stage at graduation. When she looks back at high school, what she remembers is embarrassment and ridicule from other students and teachers. The shame still follows her.

“To this day, I still get laughed at and talked about, ‘oh this person don’t know how to read,’ Prestileo said. “Bullied, to this day, and it’s not fair. You know, it’s hard for me.”

A recent Project Baltimore investigation found most of the current students at Patterson High School are far behind in both math and reading. Seventy-seven percent of the high schoolers, according to one assessment, are reading at elementary school levels. With a dropout rate of 29% and a college enrollment rate of 21%, more Patterson students quit school than enroll in higher education.

“It makes me mad. It breaks my heart. It’s sad that they’re still doing it to these children,” Prestileo said. “It’s sad, and I’m angry about it.”

When Prestileo was a student at Patterson, she had dreams of becoming a veterinarian. She wanted a career and a family. But she knew, even then, those dreams were out of reach.

“That was my dream, having kids. Being married, having kids, a bunch of kids. But that got crushed, because I can’t teach my children, I can’t help them with their homework, or nothing. And then, if I can’t help them, they are going to be just like me. And I wasn’t going to bring a child into this world, where I can’t teach them.”

Prestileo never did have children. She never became a veterinarian. She tried working at a restaurant but was scared to even clean the tables because she couldn’t read the labels on the cleaning supplies. She hasn’t had a job in years. But she did get married.

“I’m blessed. I have a husband that understands my reading situation and helps me every day with everything,” said Prestileo.

Her husband helps her with everyday tasks, like reading her mail and answering text messages. She’s made a life for herself, in spite of everything. But it’s not a life she wishes on anyone else.

“I know I’m not the only one. I know it’s a lot of people out here, and I don’t want children out there like me,” Prestileo said. “I want them to learn how to read, and know how to get through life, and be able to do their dream job, to be able to have a family. I don’t want nobody out there like me.”

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