With New Funds on the Horizon, It's Back to School for Adult Education

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Sarah Motola's ESL classroom is always filled to capacity.  (Cary Kalfayan/Visalia Adult School)

Sarah Motola’s English-as-a-second-language class at Visalia Adult School is prioritizing a list of work habits.

“What’s the most important after ‘comes to work on time?’ ” asks Motola. “Follow instructions,” the class says in unison. “OK, good. So let’s make that No.2,” says Motola.

The students here learn to use the language to navigate a new system -- get a bank account, talk to a doctor or go to work.

They come to the Central Valley from all corners of the globe -- Poland, Iran, Puerto Rico, China, India. “Our eldest student is 88 years old, from Argentina, and then we get a lot of people from Mexico,” says Motola.

Some have never been in a classroom before, and some have degrees from other countries.  Fatemeh Moin, 60, recently emigrated from Iran. She has been here for only two months, but she’s already enrolled in the ESL class. In Iran, she was a pistachio farmer. She wants to try her luck here.


“I want to start here, the same business I had in Iran, so I thought I need to learn English,” says Moin.

Guadalupe Soto DeHaro came to the United States at age 14 and had five children.  Now she’s 37 and she says she finally has time to study English. She wants to better support her children in school. Getting a job was another possibility.

“I think I can’t get a job because I don’t speak too much English,” she says. But she’s a quick study and recently got a job at Taco Bell.

In another classroom, students do math to prepare for their GED or high school equivalency exam. Many want to go on to community college.

Yesenia Jaribay, 28, takes two buses to get here after dropping her kids off at school. She says she left an abusive marriage, and right now she’s just hoping to find work.

“It’s really hard to get a job when you don’t finish school,” says Jaribay, who wants to be a psychologist.

Student Hilda Sanchez (right) gets help from ESL teacher Sarah Motola.
Student Hilda Sanchez (right) gets help from ESL teacher Sarah Motola. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

These students are among the lucky ones. They still have an adult school to attend. In the San Joaquin Valley alone, about half the adult schools closed after K-12 school districts shifted the funds to other programs during the recession. The programs that managed to stay open suffered severe cuts.

“I’ve got a classroom empty in every building right now because I haven’t been able to re-staff,” says John Werner, an assistant principal at Visalia Adult School.

But there’s some good news on the horizon: Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget includes a $500 million block grant to breathe new life into adult education.

“I never thought, in my professional career, I’d see dedicated funding come back to adult education,” says Debra Jones, dean of career education practices at the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office.  For her, it’s a social justice issue.

“The students are underrepresented students, they’re immigrant students. Some are undocumented,” she says. “They’re disenfranchised in our society, and it’s a really a conversation about poverty and race.”

Werner witnesses that poverty every day. “Our area really is the Appalachia of the West,” he says. Adult schools are imperative for economic development, especially in areas like the Central Valley where poverty is rampant, says Werner.

“It’s critical to the health of our communities that we invest heavily in education because it’s going to lift us all together,” he adds.

The proposed block grant would require school districts, community colleges and other organizations, such as workforce investment boards, to operate in a new way, as local boards or consortia coordinating adult education. These local boards are tasked with assessing community needs and streamlining programs so that nothing is duplicated. These tasks fall under Assembly Bill 86.

Werner says his area is making headway under Sacramento’s orders.

“It’s helped us understand who our partners and allies are,” he says. “We’ve been operating in silos to the point that we didn’t know about each other.”

This year, a big chunk of the block grant will continue to fund the adult schools that remain in operation. But eventually, the money is slated to flow through the Community Colleges Chancellor's Office rather than the school districts. Some educators say that will just create more bureaucracy.

“We would love to see an opportunity to rebuild what was lost. There are so many communities without adult services,” says Karen Arthur, an ESL teacher in Oxnard.  But she wants direct funding through the Department of Education.

“We don’t want our money tied up in the chancellor’s office. Also, we don’t want to create an entirely new bureaucracy to distribute funds when we have pathways that have worked fine. Honestly, there’s no need to reinvent that wheel,” says Arthur, who started the Alliance for California Adult Schools to oppose the consolidation. “We’ve seen so much devastation to the adult school system, and we don’t want to be left vulnerable on the other side of this reform.”

However the money flows, students like Tommy Juarez will still be signing up for adult school classes. He’s a tree trimmer -- hard labor, he says -- and he knows if he gets hurt on the job, he’ll be out of work with no pay.  He dropped out of high school decades ago. Now he’s working on his GED.

“I talked to my kids, I want to set a good example, let them know they should never give up. So I’m back.”

Back at adult school -- joining others who may also be able to return under the governor’s block grant.