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As financial crisis for public schools worsens, OUSD cuts almost 90% of its budget for Adult Education

on November 21, 2011

As parents, students and teachers at Oakland schools grapple with the school board’s recent decision to close five elementary schools, the Adult and Career Education program in the district has already come to terms with cuts that closed two campuses and decimated the program’s funding.

Last spring, the Oakland Unified School District, facing budget cuts from the state as well as its ongoing debt resulting from the 2003 state takeover, voted to make substantial cuts to its Adult and Career Education program. According to Chris Nelson, the program’s administrator, OUSD has diverted $10.7 million, approximately 90 percent of Adult Education’s budget, for the 2011-12 school year.

“It’s very unfortunate,” said Nelson. “It’s devastating for us, as teachers, as administrators. We just know that the need is there.”

A few years ago, the OUSD offered a full high school diploma option for adult learners, operated two campuses and served close to 2,000 students. Adult students could take classes much like those offered in traditional district schools in topics like history, English or math. Edward Shands Adult School used to host graduation ceremonies where students received high school diplomas, not just GED’s.

At the time, said Nelson, the program looked like it would keep growing. Many of the classes the district offered for adults were of great use to Oakland’s growing immigrant and refugee population, like English as a Second Language or citizenship classes. Because they were free, they were very popular. “Back in 2009, we were going to be the biggest that we ever were. We just kept expanding,” said Nelson.

But in 2009, after the passage of the California Budget Act school districts were allowed to take money from what was once “categorical funding,” or money slated for one particular program, and steer it towards another. This act allowed OUSD to use the funding stream originally intended for adult education in the district and use it to fill the gaps in its K-12 program. Although the demand for adult education was high at the time, K-12 was ruled to be a higher priority.

“It happened three quarters of the way through the school year, [and] we were in a state budget crisis,” says Nelson. So what had once been a nearly $11 million adult education program is now operating on a $1 million budget from the state as well as an additional $1.1 million in federal grants.

As a result of the cuts, the OUSD stopped offering classes in computers, fitness for seniors, entrepreneurism and construction, and ESL. The district now focuses on what its administration considers to be programs that have high-stakes outcomes: its GED program, a nursing assistant program and family literacy. Both adult school campuses were closed in June, 2010.

For now, Nelson is trying to make the best of the resources the adult education program has. “We’re really trying to focus in on the students who are with us,” he said. “We’re making sure they get the instruction that they need and that they are passing the GED. That’s the most important thing. Then we help them transition to the next step.”

Adult and Career Education staffers are in fact expanding the GED program, which administrators have found to be almost as useful as a high school diploma, as well as more cost effective and simpler for adults to go through than the previous adult high school program. McClymonds High School remains the only certified GED testing site in Oakland, but the program will soon be offering GED classes at the OUSD building in East Lake as well as at sites in Fruitvale and East Oakland.

One of the biggest changes the Adult Education program has made is cutting its ESL programming. The district offers a family literacy program at five sites, which are ESL classes for the parents of OUSD students, intended to help recently immigrated families. But these classes are only for family members of currently enrolled OUSD K-12 students.

In a city with a large immigrant and refugee population, many people who once benefited from the district’s ESL program now must go elsewhere for help. To fill in the gaps, non-profit organizations throughout the city have been increasing and even creating programming for English language learners. Sonia Slutski, the program manager of The English Center, an independent English language school, said that the district’s programming cuts have changed how the center teaches and who enrolls there.

Before, students at The English Center usually had some prior exposure to English— students used to go through OUSD programs for basic language instruction, then come to The English Center for intermediate classes, she said. Or, she said, at least they were literate in another language. “Literacy means understanding a relationship to symbols and sounds,” Slutski said. “If you’ve never learned how to write in any language you don’t even know how to do that.”

Now the center is getting students who are not literate in any language, and have little experience speaking English, she said. Although they haven’t changed their curriculum, Slutski said, her tutors have had to spend extra time with these students, and they are trying to give more individualized attention to their beginning learners.

 At Oakland International High School, where the students and parents are all recent immigrants and refugees, the administration created an ESL class for students’ family members. The program is funded in part by a grant from the Zellerbach Family Foundation and part from OUSD’s refugee student assistance program, not their Adult Education program. The class meets twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for two hours and is taught by an outside ESL teacher, Hida Viloria.

Lauren Markham, community programs specialist at Oakland International High School, said that one of the unintended outcomes of the classes is that parents, like the school’s students, have been forming bonds across cultures—the class currently includes parents from Burma, Cambodia, Yemen  El Salvador and Afghanistan. “It’s great that they feel that this is also a place for them,” she says. “They feel connected to the school.” And with only 12 students in the group—not all of whom attend on a daily basis—Markham thinks this is intimate class size is good for beginning English learners.

Still, both Lauren Markham and Chris Nelson worry that some people are still not getting the kind of instruction they need—after all, programs like the one at OIHS only reach a fraction of the people in search of these classes. The OUSD’s website refers people to a list of community organizations that offer ESL classes, including schools in Berkeley and Alameda. Some students, Nelson says, take advantage of these classes. Others attend classes offered at non-profits like the English Center or Lao Family Community Development, a social services organization for immigrants and refugees currently offers two ESL classes of 40 students each, but only has two teachers.

“It’s better than nothing,” said Markham, who directed some parents to Lao Family Community Development’s program after the OUSD cut its adult classes, but she worries that it is very difficult to learn a new language with such a high student-teacher ratio.

And ultimately, Nelson pointed out, some people can’t make it to any of these other sites for financial reasons or because of a lack of transportation.  “I believe that many of them are just not attending, because they have nowhere to go,” Nelson said.

Nelson said he understands that OUSD needs to make K-12 education its funding priority, but he still thinks that adult education needs a protected stream of funding like it had in the past. For now, Nelson said, those in the adult education program must do what they can. “We are very cognizant of the gaps here in Oakland,” he said. “We were the largest provider of ESL in the city and we are no longer doing that. We hope at some point we can re-establish that, but at this point we are longer doing so.”



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