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Adult ed, once big in Oakland, now crippled by cuts

on October 19, 2010

On a Wednesday morning in East Oakland, teacher Sam Davis leads two students through a role-playing exercise in his family literacy class at Manzanita SEED Elementary “Stretch your arms up,” he says.

One of his students reaches her hands up toward the alphabet banner lining the top of the whiteboard. Her midriff shows as she does this, and in embarrassment she tugs at the bottom of her shirt.  Each of Davis’ 15 adult students watch intently as he explains the names of body parts to this group of English language learners, whose children may very well be learning the same lesson just a few doors down.

Davis’ students sit behind long grownup-sized tables that seem out of place in a room decorated with colorful signs explaining the days of the week and types of vowels.  In back, a smaller group works on reading comprehension with a volunteer teacher. Every seat is taken, because this class –like many adult education classes in Oakland’s public schools–is filled to capacity.

“Tons of people show up, and there’s only room for 35 students in these classes,” Davis said. “My classes are a three-ring circus, because we have some people who are learning to read and write while other people are at a much higher level.”

In the aftermath of a funding crisis earlier this year that nearly emptied the city’s adult education budget and forced deep cuts in programming, almost every adult education class is now wait-listed.

In June, Oakland’s last two adult schools—out of five the city once supported—closed their doors. And at the start of this school year, the district announced it would no longer offer English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to adults.

“There is no question that it has left a huge service hole in the community,” Brigitte Marshall, director of Oakland Adult and Career Education, said of the termination of ESL classes. “Of gravest concern is the refugee community. They have fled famine and war and sought safe haven here. The safe haven offered to them by the state of California is a little hollowed and empty if we are not providing the services needed by these individuals.”

This is a worry for Davis, whose class includes at least three Bhutani refugees. “Most of them know no English,” said Davis. “They need to have English classes to adapt.”

In response to Oakland’s adult education woes, a new advocacy organization, the Bring Back Adult Education Coalition, has emerged to encourage the school district to restore funding to adult education. “Three years ago, Oakland had 250 adult education teachers. This year, there are exactly 48,” said Jessie Ortiz, a former ESL teacher, currently teaching a GED class in Spanish, who is helping organize the coalition. “We’re trying to get a large enough presence in the community to make the district take notice and take action.”

The coalition, which was founded less than a month ago, held its first press conference Monday night at the now-closed Edward Shands Adult School on Church Street.A crowd of roughly 25 current and former adult education teachers, students and community organizers gathered in front of the unoccupied building, chanting “Bring back adult schools,” while toting signs that read “Oakland Needs Adult Ed” and “Save Our School”.

Oakland’s teacher’s union, the Oakland Education Association, was a major supporter of the press conference and arrived for  the gathering in their signature bright green t-shirts.  “We know that we’re in a real budget crisis in California,” said Betty Olson-Jones, president of the teacher’s union. “But, given the new budget, it seems that things are a little better than we had hoped for. We’re going to continue to work with the district and urge them to re-open some of these schools.”

The most serious recent cuts to adult education began early this summer.  When state funding for early childhood education was on the chopping block in June, officials at the Oakland Unified School District decided to save educational services for the city’s youngest residents, at the expense of education for some of its oldest. Over the course of a month, the district funneled nearly $10 million from adult education to early childhood education. Adult education in Oakland public schools, which in May had been $11 million, was down to $1.9 million in June.

“In a cash-strapped district, it was not a decision that was made lightly,” Marshall said. “It was a decision that was made out of compelling necessity. We went back and forth three or four times in terms of what the overall funding would be.”

While this year’s changes are dramatic, the district’s tabling of adult education was evident even before the projected budget cuts. In 2000, the Oakland school district operated five adult schools across the city. But due to financial difficulties, one of the schools, a technology center in Fruitvale, was closed that year.

While Marshall could not offer an exact dollar amount for the cost savings these cuts created for the district, she stressed that operating adult classes inside K-12 schools is much cheaper. “If we operate a dedicated facility, we have to maintain the facility with staff,” she said. “When we are embedded at a district school site, our infrastructure costs go down exponentially.”

Over the past ten years, the adult education offerings have disappeared one by one. “Quality-of-life, or lifelong learning programs, were the first we were forced to cut,” Marshall said of the programs, which had included community engagement and enrichment classes. That same year, the district closed one of the three remaining adult schools, Pleasant Valley, and stopped offering any night programming at all to adult students. “Whenever we offer programming in the evening, we need to provide the staff accommodations,” said Marshall, who clarified that these staff accommodations  include custodians, clerical and administrators. “It’s purely and simply a cost consideration.”

These cuts also meant layoffs for many part-time and temporary workers. “If they were tenured teachers who earned their tenure in the adult education program, they were retained,” said Marshall adding that these teachers were reassigned to classes on the basis of their credentials.

For teachers like Davis, who are witness to these changes, the impact of adult education’s decline is dampening. “It’s really crappy to see,” he said. “Our adult education program was one of the better education programs in the state. I’ve talked to people who had English classes when they came to this country and then went on to become community organizers. I think that’s something that we’re losing.”

Still, Oakland continues its adult classes as best it can with limited resources. A notice on the Adult and Career Education website indicates that classes are still being offered in high school diploma completion, GED testing and studies, GED Spanish testing and studies, citizen preparation and some technical education.

In light of the closure of its adult schools, the district now conducts adult education classes in K-12 public schools. “We are supporting family literacy in 20 district elementary and middle schools, and high school completion services at five district high schools,” said Marshall, who explained that schools in the district are supposed to serve four purposes: education of children, education of adults, parenting education and parent/child time together. “The idea is to make each school a full-service community school.”

But the numbers of adults taking these classes has plummeted. “At our height, we were serving over 30,000 adults a year,” said Marshall. “I would really be guessing, but we’re down to a few thousand now. It’s a fraction of what we used to serve.”  The district is currently enrolling adults for this school year.

Oakland schools spokesperson Troy Flint said that this month’s enactment of the long-awaited state budget may offer some hope for the city’s adult education. The budget, which arrived 100 days after its June 30 deadline, restores roughly $13 million to early childhood education in Oakland. “First, we want to fully restore early childhood education, and then we will worry about all other funding,” Flint said. “It’s possible that there could be some restoration of funds to adult aid.”

H.D. Palmer, a Sacramento-based spokesperson for the state’s department of finance said Oakland’s method of distributing funds to adult education is in line with the state’s expectations. California uses a form of budgeting that allows school districts limited flexibility to redistribute funds from one line item to another. “Adult education was one of about two programs where we were told that districts could move around money,” Palmer said.

Still, even with the back seat given to adult education in Oakland, Marshall supports the district’s decisions, and says she’s optimistic. “We have preserved an infrastructure,” she said, “and are well-positioned to build back our programming as the budget improves.”

For supporters of adult education, the move to build back adult education cannot come fast enough. “They’ve got the space, they’ve got the interest, they’ve got students who want to be here and they’ve got teacher’s who want to teach,” said Olsen-Jones at the Bring Back Adult Education Coalition press conference Monday. “We have such a wealth of riches in our city in terms of our population. To deny them this is tragic.”

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  1. june on October 19, 2010 at 12:22 pm

    For me, any adult education program associated with the Oakland Unified School District isn’t worth taking. It’s nice that they can help others but they have never been interested in helping anyone but the least trained persons in the city.

  2. Pamela Drake on October 20, 2010 at 10:39 am

    I attended the press conference in front of the school where I taught and counseled for the last 4 years, Edward Shands. I’m now a laid off AFT teacher. In addition to ESL, Adults with Disabilities, most senior programs,and many vocational programs, the high school diploma classes do not exist in Oakland any longer.
    Our students need real human interaction not servicing by a computer or take-out classes. We taught regular high school subjects to students who have been marginalized all their lives and who struggled mightily to come back to school. Our school was also a community for our students who do not have access to many of the services or just don’t know how to obtain those services that most take for granted.
    While I encourage voters to challenge the board members who are running for reelection on the need for these programs, I would also encourage you to vote for Prop 25 which modernizes how budgets are made in California and begins the process of taking away minority (read Republican) control over the State Leg. Adult Education had dedicated funding from the state, and we must demand its return.

  3. Christina Niven on October 20, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Adult Education is at fault, too. For the last ten years, Adult Education has wasted the tax payers money by offering hobby classes for free. Now, we have a REAL budget problem and suddenly the meat and potato classes like English as a Second Language and high school diploma classes are being closed. Why didn’t Adult Ed and the State of California cut the “quaility of life” classes like pottery making long before this train crashed into the wall? Pottery making and photography classes are offered by Park and Recreation Departments in most cities. Why did Adult Ed pay $40 an hour for someone to teach pottery making? I work in Adult Ed and I saw the abuses.

  4. […] state-funded English as a Second Language (ESL) programs for adults, like the City of Oakland’s, which was cut last fall. About 90 percent of students access financial aid, Jackson said. “The fact is, we can help any […]

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