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What Is The Primary Purpose Of California Public Adult Schools?

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By Bob Harper

What Is The Primary Purpose Of California Public Adult Schools? Like beauty, the answer to that question varies from eye to eye. California has been a pioneer of public adult education, really in the whole world.  Public school district-supported ESL classes for adult immigrants were offered in 1856 in the basement of Old St. Mary’s Church in San Francisco.  That tradition of local schools offering classes for adults, “night school” for working adults to develop English literacy, or finish a HS diploma, has been a critical service in California’s economic development and commitment to equity and social mobility.

Recently a study was produced on whether “the American Dream” of social mobility still exists, that is whether there is still movement from lower social economic circumstances to higher.  The dream is pretty deeply deferred in most of the county.  However, San Jose and the Bay Area lead the country in the metrics of that mobility; here it is more possible than anywhere else in the US.  It’s not too much to claim that our public adult education system has helped to create the environment where that happens.

Many things at the state and federal levels have challenged the status quo in adult schools.  (Not the least of which was the devastating opening of adult school funds to local school districts in 2009 – there are one million fewer students in adult school now than were there in 2008!). Like so often in the history of California adult schools have been asked to rethink (I’d say “re-imagine” if I worked in a university) what adult education should do.   There have been understandable confusion and many mixed messages.  There’s been some concern that a focus on ESL and basic skills, on “career pathways” and regional economic development limits transformative adult education.  I share that concern.  However, for me public adult education offering “workforce development” is much more than creating a skilled working class. It’s a question of social justice.

It’s a critical priority to direct our limited resources to those who need it most. Those who need it most are the indeed the pre-literate, the immigrant, and communities marginalized by race, language and poverty.  In my view, this is the natural constituency of adult schools.  To believe that this needs to be a higher priority than offering programs for older adults, health and safety programs, and home economics is not a sign of disrespect for older adults.  I used to teach older adults; heck, I am an older adult.  But in adult schools there is a demographic difference between ESL students and older adult students.  Older adult students in adult school programs have been disproportionately white, and they have the cultural capital to figure out options.  And there are relatively more choices for them than for an immigrant adult has who needs to acquire English.


In the school where I work, our program is 20% older adult students; none of those classes are funded by money that could support ESL, literacy, basic skills, and GED.   We have waiting lists for ESL and basic skills.  In Oakland, South Central LA, Elk Grove, Salinas… in so many places the need for classes for ESL, basic skills is far more than the capacity in 2008 could meet, let alone now.  A liberatory education program for literacy, immigrant integration, and career readiness is what is needed.

As a progressive educator, the following statistics make clear to me what I need to do:

  • 1 in 3 of the 4 million working families in California are considered low-income
  • Of the 1.87 million low-income families in the state, 73% are a part of the labor force.
  • Nearly half are without a high school diploma or GED
  • 60% have no Postsecondary education.
  • 40% of all children under the age of 18 in California, are from working low-income families.

Forty percent of the children in California are in working low-income families.  We can agree on the false logic of scarcity, and point out that there needs to huge structural changes in our economy and that the discourse in the public sphere is not where it needs to be.  But I can’t wait, I want to do what I can about immigrant integration/liberation and address the questions of poverty with the resources we have now.

Bob Harper, Ed.D, is Director of Adult Education for Campbell Adult and Community Education. He has worked in adult schools for over 40 years.  He began as an ESL teacher in East Los Angeles where both his parents were also adult ESL teachers.  His doctoral research is on Mexican immigrant adults perceptions of the US educational systems.


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