On one recent morning in an English as a Second Language (ESL) classroom at Palo Alto's Greendell School, the tables began to fill up, and the "intermediate high" level students their faces evincing a mix of ages, ethnicities and genders turned to instructor Mary Bazigos, who started class by setting out the day's agenda and reviewing students' answers to homework.
Bazigos' class was in the midst of a unit on weather and natural disasters, and one student approached the whiteboard to share a sentence she had composed about a time when she and her friends came across fallen trees blocking a roadway.
Wielding a green dry-erase marker, Bazigos reviewed the sentence word by word, making corrections and asking the student to explain certain phrases. When finished, Bazigos told her and the class not to be discouraged by the number of changes.
"Please don't feel bad with mistakes," she said. "That's why you're here."
"Here" is the Palo Alto Adult School's ESL program which offers classes four mornings a week at Greendell, four nights a week at Palo Alto High School and three days a week at Stanford University's Escondido Village, as well as a host of special programs. According to the school's enrollment data, 456 students participated in the ESL program last spring with an additional 202 taking English enrichment and writing classes, which together represented a bit more than 31 percent of enrollment across all categories. That percentage was higher in the fall of 2014 (the school's busiest semester) at nearly 41 percent.
The ESL program symbolizes the school's recently strengthened emphasis on providing students with the skills they need to continue their education, seek employment and ultimately sustain themselves and their families. And with new funding and encouragement from the California Department of Education to collaborate with the region's other adult educators, the school has now become better equipped to assist students in finding opportunities in the professional world and at local community colleges, administrators say.
Founded in 1921, the Palo Alto Adult School is officially part of the Palo Alto Unified School District and is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Today its programs run the gamut from fee-based classes in cooking, computer skills, genealogy, upholstery, foreign languages and many other areas, to fully or partially state-supported programs like career technical education, high school equivalency preparation, citizenship classes and ESL courses.
Still more classes exploring subjects like grant writing, computer programming, foreign languages and social media for businesses are offered online through the firm Education 2 Go.
The bounty of programs today doesn't show the full picture, though, including the rocky financial road of recent years that in the end led the adult school in a new and purposeful direction.
In the years following the Great Recession, education funding in California was sliced, and adult education was often near the top of the list of items on the chopping block. Kara Rosenberg, who served as the Palo Alto Adult School principal from 2000 to 2014, prior to the current principal, Katya Villalobos, recalled that many adult-education operations around the state were reduced to bare bones, or cut entirely.
Before the Recession, Rosenberg said, the state provided funding to adult schools based on reported hours of student attendance. However, when budget cuts started to come down, state funds previously marked for adult schools went instead to the school districts, which could then decide how much to pass on to adult-education programs. (Read more about Katya Villalobos here.)
The Palo Alto Unified School District decided to reduce adult-school funding by 20 percent, forcing the institution to make some tough decisions. Those included cutting its ESL program from five to four days a week and charging fees for some advanced ESL courses.
In addition, the state decided to stop supporting certain programming, including home economics and classes for older adults, that were not part of a new focus on career education, Rosenberg said. In Palo Alto, some of these programs became fee-based.
As much of its funding comes from property taxes, the Palo Alto school district was not as hard hit as others by the budget cuts, and some smart changes like the decision to move some ESL classes from Cubberley to the Greendell campus enabled the district to streamline the adult-school operations and minimize the impact of the funding crisis, according to Rosenberg.
"Many of the changes were actually quite positive," she said. "We sat down and looked at what we really needed in the community."
Another change that Rosenberg noted was the phasing out of the school's aircraft-maintenance technician program, which dated to the 1940s. It was a logical place to scale back, she said, as there were not many jobs in the sector available in the area.
As the economy began to rebound, the state began to eye ways to return funding to adult education while helping to coordinate efforts between entities providing that education. To that end, the State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 86 in 2013, legislation which led to the creation of the Adult Education Block Grant, formally laid out in 2015's Assembly Bill 104.
According to the California Department of Education website, this new funding source allocates dollars to districts based on past expenditures as well as to newly formed regional consortia groups of adult-education providers, including school districts, county offices of education and community college districts. To incentivize participation, the consortium funds are only available to districts and other providers who have joined a regional group.
The Palo Alto Adult School took advantage of the opportunity, banding together with Foothill College, De Anza College, Mountain View-Los Altos Adult School and Sunnyvale-Cupertino Adult School to form the North Santa Clara County Student Transition Consortium.
The group created a plan, following instructions to outline the services available in the region, funds available to those providers, the education needs of adults in the region, and how consortium members and other groups would work to "improve integration of services and to improve transitions into postsecondary education and the workforce," the legislation states.
Villalobos said that the consortium model encourages cooperation between adult schools and community colleges, helping to eliminate redundancies in programming.
"And frankly making it easier for adult-school students to go and receive programs at the community colleges," Villalobos said, highlighting the goal of providing students with a "seamless transition" through new staffing, career technical education and robust writing programs.
As part of the Adult Education Block Grant for fiscal year 2015-16, the state allocated nearly $337 million to individual adult-education providers, with an additional $38 million distributed to regional consortia. The Palo Alto Adult School was given $1,283,035 for the school year and received an additional $199,212 through consortium funding, as did the other adult schools in the collaborative.
The Palo Alto school district also received an Adult Education and Family Literacy Act grant of $181,782 for the fiscal year 2015-16 through funds from the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, according to the state education-department website.
Though it is difficult to compare current funding levels to those prior to the recession, funding is definitely on the upswing from prior cuts, Villalobos said. The adult school this year has been able to commit more dollars to programs in keeping with the state's focus on college and workforce preparation.
In addition to supporting professional development for teachers and online resources, new funding is going toward career technical education (CTE) short-term courses offered for a fee through a partner agency, Harper Rand. The adult school brought back these courses in 2015 and this spring is prepared to offer CTE classes in phlebotomy and medical-assistant training if enough students enroll, Villalobos said.
These courses, Villalobos said, are ideal for individuals who have high school diplomas and have previously worked in service-oriented jobs without much opportunity for advancement.
"People who take these courses can go to get either pre-apprenticeships, or some type of entry (level opportunity), and then potentially get jobs ... out of the certifications," Villalobos said.
In January, the adult school also created a new position, transition advisor and assessment specialist, to serve in a role similar to that of a high school guidance counselor in informing ESL and high school equivalency students of their options for further education and training.
Additional funds are going as well to the ESL program to subsidize some of its Writing Academy classes, which hone writing skills invaluable in both business and academic environments.
These changes reinforce the movement toward clearer pathways between adult education and community colleges, represented formally by the new structure of the regional consortium. Rosenberg, who remains active in the adult-education world in her retirement, is gladdened by this new focus and hopes that the new consortium model is successful.
"I believe really strongly in this effort ... because it's really terrible when a student finishes (the program) and we have no way to really help them, except refer them to a website," Rosenberg said.
For at least one student in Bazigos' class, Michelle Yang, the goal of ESL studies is to go to college. While she has not settled on what exact form her future education might take, she talked about her interests in nutrition and preschool education.
Originally from the Henan Province of China, the 28-year-old student moved to the United States with her husband, who was a Stanford University student. She recalled how at first her English speaking skills were poor and she was shy as a result. Then, at one point, she visited Stanford's Bechtel International Center, where she heard about the Palo Alto Adult School's ESL program.
Now two years into the program, having started at the literacy level and advanced to intermediate high, she feels more confident and independent, regularly completing errands in public. She also feels more engaged at gatherings with her husband's co-workers, situations she had struggled in before.
"First time when I came to the party I don't understand and I speak very slowly," Yang said. "When they asked me some questions, I don't understand. ... Now I'm not afraid and I can speak a lot."
At the adult school, Yang has found the other students to be quite welcoming and enjoys celebration of holidays like Christmas. She said that she often recommends the adult school to new arrivals and has a few friends who have taken her advice and currently study there.
"I like it here ... because I can learn a lot, and I also can make a lot of friends, and I can know different countries' culture," she said.
ESL Program Director Alex Scott emphasized that all adult schools "play a pretty important role in immigrants' lives in terms of getting them integrated into the community." That assistance manifests itself by both providing a positive social environment and through lessons that teach to skills that newcomers need.
While the textbooks and exercises hammer home grammatical concepts (Bazigos' lesson, for example, focused on time clauses, including "until," "before" and "as soon as"), the curriculum is meant to be as useful for everyday life to students as possible, Scott said. She pointed to a brand new unit for the intermediate high class that will focus on how to interact as a parent with a child's school supplying opportunities to learn how to fill out forms and role play a parent-teacher conference.
According to Scott, who has been in her current role since 2008, the ESL classes begin at pre-literacy and literacy and continue from beginning low to advanced low all of which are fully funded and free for students. The school holds placement tests four times a year to determine students' English language skills. More experienced students who test out of the program can take the school's fee-based English Enrichment classes, which provide opportunities to polish certain areas like idiom usage, advanced writing and conversational fluency.
The school also funds distance learning programs: CBET, for parents who want to help their children with schoolwork, and Learn English at Home (LEAH), for individuals who are unable to attend class on a regular basis. Students in both programs study at home and meet with a teacher once a week in person.
The pre-literacy class is a unique offering that emerged over the last few years, Scott said, beginning with one student from Guatemala whose first language was not a written one. Others in the school, staff discovered, were advancing through levels at the school but eventually hit a roadblock when their writing and reading skills could not keep up. A class was formed and has grown as others have heard through school channels and word of mouth.
"That's been really exciting ... because those folks are some of the hardest to find and the hardest to serve," Scott said.
Many ESL students at the Palo Alto Adult School live in the immediate area, but others travel to classes from as far away as San Jose and Fremont, Scott said. By nature of the program, students are also a diverse bunch. During class, Bazigos asked students to talk about life in their "home countries," with students mentioning Brazil and China. The accents of students hinted that those were not the only backgrounds represented.
Though class material remains focused on practical subjects (education, health, safety, etc.), the program is adjusting its approach to take into account the full range of possibilities for students' futures, prodded in part by the adult school's participation in the regional consortium.
"Traditionally, we've had a life-skills focus in our curriculum, and we continue to have that, but what's new for us is, because of the focus now on transitioning students to work and college, we're now looking at the college- and career-readiness standards, which are more academic focused," Scott said.
That shift prompted the bolstering of the school's Writing Academy classes, which include three levels that are fully funded beginning this session, Scott said, thanks to Adult Education Block Grant and consortium funds. Having gone through the budget cut and some tight years during her time as coordinator, she said it's wonderful to see new support and funding from the state.
"We're not letting our guard down, but we're sighing relief," she said.
Working together with other members of the consortium has been enlightening and a "very useful exercise," Scott noted. As co-chair of curriculum development for the consortium, she has learned much from the other entities' staff that has been helpful in providing guidance to ESL students.
"For the first time, we're really getting acquainted with the community colleges in our area and what sorts of classes and services they provide," she said.
Whatever ESL students ultimately hope to accomplish, they appear to be very motivated to improve. During her 13 years at the Palo Alto Adult School, Bazigos said she has continuously found her students to put in immense effort to overcome the attendant challenges of learning a language. Often, too, students seem deeply appreciative of her help; some have approached her at the end of a semester to offer thanks and talk about the great progress they've made.
"It's one of the few jobs I think that you just get a sense of gratification, that you really helped someone in a very meaningful way in their lives," Bazigos said.