On behalf of Oakland’s family literacy programs, student Malak Alsabahi stood at the podium and asked the school board not to cut adult education. Fellow supporters held paintings of Yemeni women while Alsabahi spoke, representing classmates who could not be there at the school board meeting Wednesday.
Over 30 speaker cards were entered during public comment to address Superintendent Tony Smith’s recommendation to eliminate 25 adult education positions at the end of the school year—the only remaining positions in the program. This would eliminate General Education Development (GED) courses for adults without a high school diploma, as well as family literacy programs which assist OUSD parents with limited English skills. The cuts were suggested in anticipation of an estimated $14 million reduction in federal funding for the district in 2013-2014 and would create approximately $1 million in savings, according to Smith.
Similarly, Governor Jerry Brown proposed that the management of California’s adult education programs be moved from the K-12 domain to community college systems when he announced his budget plans in early January. If that takes effect, funding for adult education in Oakland would be allocated to the Peralta Community College district.
At the meeting, many speakers argued that moving adult education out of K-12 schools and into community colleges would decrease access to services and hinder improved relationships between families and their community schools. Lidia Morales, a mother of two, praised the family literacy classes she attended for two years at her son’s former school, Allendale Elementary, which helped her and about 20 other parents improve their English reading, writing and speaking skills. Before she started the program, Morales said, she had a difficult time communicating with school staff. “I can now speak English with my children’s teachers and doctors,” she said. “I can also help my children with their homework.” Morales said family literacy classes also provide free childcare for parents who don’t have the resources to hire babysitters.
Jose Duenas, CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Alameda County, spoke on behalf of Spanish speakers who are trying to learn English and acquire GED certifications, which are equivalent to high school diplomas. “People can’t get to a community college without a GED. Where do they go? They end up on the streets. Somebody has to deal with them,” he said. “I think you’re making a very, very serious mistake by eliminating the program that you have.”
But ultimately, the board voted 5-1 to eliminate adult education, with District 5 representative Rosie Torres casting the only “no” vote. Smith stated that the resolution was “driven by a March 15th deadline,” which is the date by which the district must notify employees whose positions may be reduced or eliminated in the upcoming year. “There are still many unknowns,” he said, adding that they still needed to determine the restrictions of the new funding formula for local schools proposed by Governor Brown.
The board may rescind those layoff notifications by May 8 if the budget allows.
School board president David Kakishiba mentioned that the superintendent will present his initial budget plan at an upcoming board work session in mid-March, which would provide more insight into whether some adult education programming can remain in the district. “Before May comes around, before a final decision is made on layoff notices, I certainly personally will be figuring out how to reach out to the Peralta systems and to understand where we are as a city under adult education services,” Kakishiba said.
But some consider that false hope. “It was really depressing,” said Victoria Carpenter, a family literacy teacher at La Escuelita Elementary, after the vote. “I think the board heard us, but I have a feeling they don’t really understand. I don’t know how to explain it to them any more. I feel like they don’t understand the importance of these classes.”
Carpenter noted this isn’t the first time adult education has been the victim of substantial cuts. In 2010, the department’s approximately $11 million budget was whittled down to about $1.9 million. “We were all laid off and they’ve hired us back, 9 of us at a part-time salary and with less hours,” she said. “We’re all scraping it together. I work two other jobs to support this job and I guess I’m really exhausted from the fight.”
After most of the crowd left, OUSD staff also presented a report on attendance and chronic absenteeism, a problem the district began tracking more closely last school year. OUSD staff found that 1 out of every 10 students missed nearly a month of school in 2012.
Staff recommendations for improving attendance included forming attendance teams at school sites that could monitor the situation by sending letters home to those who are chronically absent, making personal calls and home visits with parents when necessary, and providing positive incentives like certificates or trophies at the end of the year to students with improved attendance. OUSD staff said their target goal is to reduce the chronic absenteeism rate among students to 5 percent or less.
That night the school board also paid tribute to the late Caroline Yee, wife of school board director Gary Yee, who served as teacher, principal and administrator in several Oakland schools.
“Yee touched untold numbers of lives during a career in education that spanned more than four decades,” Kakishiba said, reading the resolution to honor her memory. “Every personal recollection of Yee contained the word ‘caring,’ which is indicative of her spirit and the love she brought to her work with the young children who are so in need of this, the greatest of all qualities.”
Those who would like to share fond memories of Caroline Yee can send them to Gary Yee at email@example.com, who will compile them in her honor.