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By Jay Thorwaldson

About this blog: I was editor of the Palo Alto Weekly from June 2000 to January 2011, capping a more than 50-year career in journalism and writing since Los Gatos High School, where I was editor of the student newspaper and president of the speech...  (More)

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Will -- or should -- adult schools remain 'the quiet corner' of local education?

Uploaded: May 22, 2013
In about eight years, the Palo Alto Adult School will be observing its 100th anniversary -- a century of promoting the notion that learning can be for a lifetime.

Since its founding in 1921, the adult school actually can boast providing learning that has spanned several lifetimes, generations.

I once referred to the adult school as "the quiet corner" of education in the often fractious, high-pressure, debate-prone and sometimes hypercritical world of local education generally and especially in Palo Alto.

The fact was that this quiet corner had more students than all the rest of the Palo Alto schools combined. It currently has about 8,000 students taking a huge array of classes, some specially designed for persons with disability challenges or for seniors.

Granted, these are not full-time students, so there's an apples-and-oranges comparison. But they are real individuals, real people leading real lives.

And as state officials ponder the future of education in desperate-budget years (beginning to ease, one hopes), the adult schools seem to be easy targets, with their easygoing -sounding enrichment classes. Some school districts have drastically cut back or even killed their adult schools after being recently freed from the state's "categorical funding" system that funded them to the tune of about $700 million to $900 million annually.

But in Palo Alto, the adult school is flourishing, with a vigorous outreach effort, a bright and easy-to-navigate website, and a strong alliance with other adult schools and community colleges in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. (For details, see column of last week: http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=18922 .)

And there is a recognition that not all adult-school students are in their easygoing years. The largest single group of enrollees in Palo Alto Adult School are students taking "English as a Second Language" (or ESL) classes. That usually means that they are first- or sometimes even second-generation immigrants, most trying to adjust to a new life in a new nation.

But the classes don't just teach English. They are designed to prepare the students for academic advancement (i.e. college) or for career advancement or simply getting a job that can support a family.

ESL classes are free, while the more esoteric or enrichment classes are fee-supported. The website describes the range: "We provide classes for English learners, parents, job seekers, travelers, hobbyists, and others who want to expand their skills. Whether you want to learn to cook, try your hand at something new or enhance your skills, let us meet your lifelong learning needs."

Then there's the national "immigration debate."

I've often thought that those who rail about the invasion of immigrants while wrapping themselves in patriotic righteousness should attend a new-citizenship swearing-in ceremony. There they would witness truly heartfelt, tears-in-the-eyes patriotism as those of all ages and national origins officially adopt their new nation and home.

Many, perhaps most, of those at such ceremonies are graduates of ESL classes somewhere -- perhaps right in Palo Alto.

I do have a personal soft spot for the Palo Alto Adult School. In the late 1950s, as a freshman at Los Gatos High School I had a summer job in Los Altos as a caretaker for a large estate that formerly was the site of a summer camp where I taught horseback riding to urban kids.

I wanted to learn to type to use the new Olivetti portable I was given following the recent death of my father, but Los Gatos school officials felt freshmen weren't mature enough to learn typing.

So one day in early summer I called the Palo Alto Adult School.

"Is there an age limit for taking a class?" I asked.

"No, no matter how OLD you are you may enroll," the nice person replied.

"How about how young?" I pursued. No problem there, either. So all summer I took Thursday-night typing lab and practicing between mowing lawns and cleaning windows. By fall I was hitting 60-words a minute error free -- far faster than I would ever need for a future in journalism and writing.

Then I learned an invaluable lesson in educational rigidity. Armed with my typing-test scores I asked to be excused from the required sophomore typing class. No, I was told by the dean of boys at the time. It's a required class." So I spent a semester in total boredom in the beginning-typing class, and harboring to this day a conviction that such rigidity -- no, stupidity is a better term -- has no place in any school.

I would enjoy hearing other anecdotes of how adult school classes may have contributed to or altered someone's life -- post a comment.

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

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Joe, a resident of ,
on May 22, 2013 at 10:17 am

Will, or should, Adult Schools be operated by the State, requiring public subsidy?should perhaps be a better question. Why shouldn?t these activities be shifted to the private sector?so that the ?true costs? of this education service can be known to those who are its customers, and the public? Currently, there is virtually no information published by the PAUSD that illuminates direct, and indirect costs?such as teacher salaries, building subsidies, and future pension obligations for teachers in this ?quiet corner? system.

> And as state officials ponder the future of education in
> desperate-budget years

The US Department of Education documents that about 9% of the US GDP is consumed by pubic schools?more if all the private schools are considered. And even more yet when long-term pension obligations are definitely not in these calculations, either! What is Mr. Thorwaldsen talking about? Or is he just parroting the ?education company? line?

Here in California, 40% of the State?s General Fund is dedicated to ?education?. Given that relatively rich Basic Aid school districts pay most of their own expenses, the actual cost of education is hard to express in simple ways?given how complex, and non-transparent, so much of the revenue streams for public schools happens to be.

The California should be looking at this ?obligation to education? that has been a publicly-expressed sentiment, at the polls, anyway. Education is very expensive, and it does not provide much in the way of returns, other than for those currently becoming very wealthy as education system employees. There are perhaps 2M full, and part-time, employees of ?government? (state/county/city/education/special districts) in California. The last Census shows about 1M of those employees are in the education system. That?s about one education system employee for each individual taxpayer. It?s hard to look forward at the ever-increasing number of state employees and wonder how long can this go on?

It?s a shame that Jay Thorwaldson has drifted into nostalgia about Adult Education, rather than some hard-headed analysis of the costs, and benefits, and future of this government activity.

Posted by Life-long Learner, a resident of ,
on May 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm

I have always enjoyed learning new things, and I love researching. I agree with the above statements, though, that the government should not be funding this, it belongs in the private sector. If the public has to pay full price, they will appreciate it more, and. Ot be so likely to start a class and then drop it before completion.

The government needs to concentrate on the education of children and young adults, and that includes higher education including grad school.

Older adult education needs more publicity and more private funding.

Posted by paly parent, a resident of ,
on May 22, 2013 at 2:21 pm

I suspect ESL classes "pay it forward" in reducing costs for education the children of ESL Adult ed students. Do these classes belong at high schools or at the community colleges?

As far as the other enrichment classes, if they are self supporting, then why not continue them? Do the fees cover the cost of the classes, including the instructors and any office staff time? Are adult ed enrichment classes any different than the City subsidized Enjoy catalog or Children's theater from a public support standpoint?

Posted by Wendie, a resident of ,
on May 26, 2013 at 5:13 pm

I work as an Area Director for AuPairCare. Most of my au pairs in the area take the English Enrichment classes at PAAS and all seem to benefit greatly fro them. Adult schools are the best option for au pairs since international fees at the community colleges are so expensive.

Posted by Marty, a resident of ,
on Jun 2, 2013 at 11:13 pm

Adult education serves a wider function than seniors getting cheap classes. Statewide, many adult ed. students are high school dropouts getting a second chance at becoming productive citizens. It is well worth our money to help those students get diplomas or GED certificates and then go on to jobs or college. The alternative is to let them continue to be unemployed and watch as they turn to criminal activities to get money.

Like those students, legal ESL immigrants can learn to become productive citizens. Thing is, until those students have an income, they cannot afford to pay much for classes. A typical Adult Ed ESL student has been in the USA for several years and has been working at menial, dead-end jobs just to survive. Many have had limited education-4-5 years total--before coming here. Educated parents can help educate their kids.

An educated population is an advantage for all of us; however, I suppose those who want a source of cheap labor would not agree.

Non-academic classes for seniors usually have fees based on the type of class.

Posted by local gem, a resident of ,
on Jun 5, 2013 at 1:13 am

Even though I had the best university education, by far the best writing classes I ever took were from the Palo Alto Adult School. I remember having to FAX in my application the moment enrollment opened.

Not everything that seems too good to be true, really is.

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