Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 17, 2013

On Deadline: Are adult schools an endangered species?

by Jay Thorwaldson

About 40 years back I wrote a column (for the former Palo Alto Times) about what seemed like an aggressive push by the independent community colleges to usurp the roles of adult schools, lodged in K-12 or high-school districts.

The column hit a nerve, and to my surprise it was reprinted in a statewide education journal.

The competitive push diminished over the years, but there has remained a large pool of confusion about the respective roles of the two entities statewide, and what the community colleges should be doing versus the hundreds of adult schools.

Both have been faced in recent years with severe budget cuts, adding a crisis-mode urgency to many educators on the front lines. Some school districts have already drastically reduced or even killed their adult schools.

But whatever is occurring statewide — with much depending on Governor Jerry Brown's "May Budget Revise" released this week — there's an entirely different environment in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

That environment has stemmed from an effort launched five years ago, prompted largely by budget-crisis concerns relating to overlaps. It was also prompted a professional desire among some key educators to provide the best, most effective and cost-effective services to their academic clients — primarily in the area of English as a Second Language, known as ESL.

The two-county effort (itself something of a rarity in a one-county-focused academic world) goes under the name of ALLIES, a vaguely World War II-sounding name that actually stands for Alliance for Language Learners' Integration, Education and Success. (See www.allies4esl.org/ for details.)

The goal of the alliance is to clarify the respective roles of the institutions and to remove barriers to the target audience for ESL, namely recent immigrants who need English to progress academically or in "family-sustaining" jobs or careers.

The ALLIES have been strongly supported by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, with a series of grants in the $50,000 to $100,000 range. Recently, the alliance was notified it will be part of a massive, $2.6 million U.S. Department of Labor grant.

Adult schools have a rich tradition of aiding adult immigrants adjust to American ways and job or academic necessities. They were founded a century and a half ago to do just that, and despite additions to their repertoire the ESL classes have remained a staple.

And in a national political world where immigration has become a hot issue their role has been pivotal to many new Americans and their families.

Prior to the May Budget Revise, Brown proposed shifting state funding from adult schools to community colleges, first by removing so-called "categorical funding" that including such schools. The community colleges were offered about $300 million to take on the ESL and related programs.

But the adult schools under the categorical funding had been getting something between $700 million and $900 million annually — a mathematical fact not lost on community-college officials.

"There has been a tremendous amount of opposition," Kara Rosenberg, principal of the Palo Alto Adult School and a founding member of ALLIES, one of six persons on its Steering Committee, said of the state's plan. She expects changes in the Budget Revise, but most school officials are still trying to figure out its local implications.

"Most community colleges are saying, 'No, this is not a good idea.' Nobody's running to grab the money," according to Jenny Costello, another key leader of the ALLIES effort. Costello is a professor and coordinator of ESL at Canada College, who has taught at the college for 38 years and once served as interim head of Humanities and Social Sciences. Other key players are Anniqua Rana of Canada College; Bob Harper of Campbell Adult and Community Education; Lionel de Maine of Sequoia District Adult School; Rachel Perez, Gavilan College; and Paul Downs of PDC Consulting, a facilitator working with the grant funding.

"Most community colleges are not interested in trying to take on a whole new role with a lot less money," Costello summed up. "We've been getting nothing but cuts and we're trying to still fulfill our mission, which is basic skills, career technical and transfer.

"And now you're going to add a new level below basic skills, and with very little money to do it?"

Costello said when she started as an adjunct professor there was a more competitive environment between the colleges and adult schools, but locally that has all but disappeared over the past decade, especially locally. In San Mateo County, the shift was expedited in 2009 when the North Fair Oaks Community Council met with the president of Canada College at the time, Tom Moore.

Several members of the North Fair Oaks council asked for Canada to bring courses into the community, specifically ESL and math to meet the needs of both the individuals and local businesses. That dovetailed nicely with a Canada initiative called The Neighborhood College, which Costello was spearheading. "It was to bring the college into the neighborhoods where our students live." Canada also has an ESL program, called Community-Based English Tutoring (CBET), that offers college ESL courses at elementary schools for parents of elementary-school children.

"The (Sequoia) adult school was happy to give us space and this became like a bridge or a transition to college for the students who had finished the adult school classes" — becoming the genesis for the ALLIES efforts, Costello said.

"So rather than competition this partnership is based entirely on collaboration. And because of this collaboration we eliminated the lowest level of ESL that we offer in the community and we send the students to the adult school. And then the adult school eliminated its highest level so there was no duplication of offerings.

"Rather than trying to duplicate what we were doing we decided to align what we were doing. And it's been beneficial for both institutions."

Both Costello and Rosenberg insist they are not trying to "tell others how to do something." But they are happy to show others what they're doing locally to resolve a decades-old confusion about respective roles and duplicated programs.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at jthorwaldson@paweekly.com with a copy to jaythor@well.com. He also writes regular blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).

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