A ladder for workers on the bottom rung

Stipends open community college door for local laborers, housekeepers

A midcareer "failure" for a Palo Alto woman sparked a new trajectory that's helping local housekeepers, gardeners, waiters and home health aides to go to community college.

Elizabeth Weal left the high-tech world in her 40s to get a teaching credential, but "was not a success" as a fifth-grade teacher at Garfield Elementary School in Menlo Park. However she quickly found a niche at a school across the street — the Sequoia Adult School — teaching evening classes in English as a Second Language.

"These were amazing people, and I got this incredible sense that this is where I belonged," Weal said in an interview this week. "It was totally the opposite of the fifth graders, who were the children of these people I was enamored with."

Weal fell in love with the work and with her students. Ultimately, she wrote and self-published a series of simple, basic English grammar and writing textbooks after realizing her students needed guidance in their native Spanish and nothing was to be had.

Friendships with her students — nearly all of them low-wage workers — then led her to a new step: raising funds to help them take classes in community college.

This fall, 69 of them are enrolled at Canada College with small stipends from her recently registered nonprofit, Sequoia Adult School Scholars.

"These are people who really have no extra money," she said. "My idea was that if we can make this free, people would go."

Since most of the students have day jobs, they're not going to school full-time, just taking a class or two. Weal hopes some of them will complete the ESL sequence and work toward a certificate.

"One guy is a construction worker going for a certificate in kitchen and bath design," Weal said. "Another works at the counter at The Cheesecake Factory and wants to be a preschool teacher.

Weal recalled taking her Sequoia ESL students on a field trip to Canada College: "It was a gorgeous campus, and people were walking around with their mouths open — 'I can go here? This is for me?' It was a real eye-opening experience."

A grant from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation provides a part-time adviser at the adult school to help students apply for community college, and Weal's group offers $64-a-month bus passes or parking passes and help with textbooks.

East Palo Alto resident Nely Perez worked full time — often seven days a week — in a Burlingame car wash in her 12 years since arriving from Mexico, where she was a secretary in a law office.

While working 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the car wash, Perez said, "I didn't have time to study. I never attended school, but in January I said, 'No, I need to prepare. I need to go to school. I like to study.'"

Her husband, a construction worker, encouraged her and, with a parking pass and textbooks paid for by Sequoia Adult School Scholars, Perez is taking three English classes at Canada.

She wants to be able to help her 8-year-old daughter with her homework.

"The only thing I need is somebody with whom I can speak English because at home everybody speaks Spanish," Perez said. After speaking English all day at work and school, her husband and daughter prefer to speak Spanish at home, she said.

Weal continues to sell her $10 textbooks — 11,000 of them so far — through and out of her garage, and she's no longer losing money.

"Obviously I'm not supporting myself in Palo Alto with these books, but more and more the sales are going up," she said. "I am making money — not a lot of money."

She's found a market in neighborhood organizations, churches and groups with names like Adelante Mujeres (Forward Women), where ESL classes are taught.

"People send in money orders for a book," she said. "One guy from East Palo Alto came to my house with cash for a book."

Weal stores 1,500 books in her garage and Amazon prints them on demand, which she calls "a pretty unsexy way to print books.

"My husband says, 'Aren't you sick of packing boxes of books?' and I say 'No, I'm incredibly happy to do this.'

"It's great to be making books that make a difference."

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1 person likes this
Posted by Joanne
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 19, 2013 at 9:21 pm

Over the past few years, I've seen the impact the scholarships have had on the adult school graduates. It's really great to know that my contributions are helping local people use education to move ahead. To find out more about the Sequoia Adult School Scholars Foundation, visit their website at

1 person likes this
Posted by Garrett
a resident of another community
on Oct 21, 2013 at 9:58 am

This article shows you most property who are low income are willing to improve their skills which will change their lives. It must be hard for people to chose rent, food or gas for car but spending fees for schools and book is dream.

Dreams come true and thank you for helping.

1 person likes this
Posted by Tom
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 21, 2013 at 12:00 pm

For several years I've participated in a Stanford volunteer program called Beyond the Farm. The last couple of years I've helped pack children's books to go to school libraries in Africa. Reading the article about the outstanding efforts of Elizabeth Weal, I'm wondering if there might be something Beyond the Farm could do to assist. Since my only connection to the program is as a volunteer, I certainly can't commit anything on their behalf, and it is just a once-a-year effort, so perhaps it wouldn't work. But if Elizabeth or someone associated with Sequoia Adult School Scholars wants to contact them, their published email address is

Like this comment
Posted by Michelle'sGrandPair
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 21, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Getting a college degree does not guaranty success. My granddaughter, [portion removed] graduated UCSD with a double major, biology and history. It took her 5 years to complete and she didn't even have to work... school was her "work." She graduated in 2010 from UCSD. Since then she has been BUMMING AROUND and telling her parents that she wants to attend medical school. She is KILLING TIME by babysitting and taking junior college courses for the past 3 years! Yes! Obviously she hasn't gotten an AA/AS degree or certificate... Just killing time. This kid is still living at home in San Jose with her parents. I don't see why any medical school would want to accept her since there are Stanford grads who graduate magna cum laude, some within 3 years, work or volunteer and contribute to the community. Sad to say my granddaughter hasn't got what it takes to become a doctor. She wants to make a lot of money that is the only reason she desires to become a doctor. I think she is just a dreamer. I doubt my son will ever kick her out. She needs to start her own life. She's never had a boyfriend at 26 years of age. Anyway, college doesn't necessarily guaranty success in life.

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 21, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Hey Michelle'sGrandPair, maybe all these details about someone else's life should not be made public, why don't you talk about your own life or keep it anonymous? That's just plain nasty ... glad your not related to me.

Like this comment
Posted by fossiol
a resident of Portola Valley
on Oct 22, 2013 at 11:15 am

@Michelle'sGrandPair, I don't want to say your granddaughter is a loser. She sounds like a slacker though. You are right that a college degree does not always ensure success. Also, does she pay food, rent or gas? I presume your son gave her a car. If not she is well on her way to becoming a freeloader. Your son won't evict her because he would probably miss her too much.

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Who knows what kind of confidence issues, motivational issues, trauma or mental problems that girl might have. Perhaps there are things that happened to her that she didn't tell her gramps with the lousy judgement who might have broadcast it all over the country. I really cannot hardly believe a grandfather who would post his granddaughter's name on the internet calling her names and berating her ... that explains a lot to me. If it was in fact her grandfather and not someone who might have been harassing her. [Portion removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by Bru
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 23, 2013 at 8:32 pm

Bru is a registered user.

[Post removed.]

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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