The numbers are depressing, by anyone’s standards.

In 1999, 52 percent of public school children in New York City public schools were already reading below grade level, according to a citywide reading test. Adults are following the same trend: The most recent national adult literacy survey showed that over one million New Yorkers are unable to read at even a fifth grade level.

These problems and the measures being taken to alleviate them were the topic of a Dwight Hall tea yesterday with Michael Hirschhorn ’82, who until recently served as the director of the Literacy Assistance Center in New York.

The tea drew about 25 listeners, including students and directors of various literacy programs in the area.

The Literacy Assistance Center’s mission is to promote “the expansion of quality literacy services,” and it is the only comprehensive literacy resource in the city. It provides training and information services to other literacy programs to help improve their effectiveness, concentrating the majority of its efforts on adult literacy.

Hirschhorn said the need for such literacy programs is high.

“In a city of 8 million, the most conservative estimate would be 20 percent of adults needing assistance,” he said, adding that there is a “huge gap between the need and the [classroom] seats available.”

Many people hide their literacy problems for fear of the social reaction, Hirschhorn said. The stigma associated with illiteracy is high, as is the shame of admitting the need for help. The combination of busy lives and this embarrassment causes many to not seek help at all.

Oftentimes the final push for adults to improve their literacy comes from the inability to help their children with homework or the desire for a high-wage job, Hirschhorn said. But the top reason adults give for improving their literacy is a desire to read the Bible.

Hirschhorn explained that religious organizations can be very successful in literacy efforts because — unlike places such as libraries — they have a “captured audience” and many people consider them a “centerpiece in their lives.”

The Literacy Assistance Center also works with children’s literacy issues with their Creative Literacy in After-School Programs, or CLASP, which train staff in community-based after-school organizations.

Sometimes such organizations are not prepared to meet the literacy needs of children in their care. When staff members are asked to help children with reading, it “opens up an amazing can of worms,” Hirschhorn said. Some staff members are insecure about their own abilities and are not comfortable with teaching youth, while others are enthusiastic but need literacy help themselves or simply do not have the skills necessary for teaching.

CLASP assist these organizations by offering the training needed to help youngsters in the community and the opportunity for the groups to learn from one another.

The programs so far have had extremely positive results, helping community outreach centers successfully educate the children in their care, according to a Literacy Assistance Center pamphlet.

Hirschhorn said he hoped students would leave the tea “truly convinced that you can graduate from Yale and do good in the worlds of education and the community.”