Community Colleges and Adult Schools, How They Work and Who Does What, Part 2: Adult Schools: Community Interest and Mandated Programs

Adult School Community Interest Classes – Welcome to the World: If you are fortunate enough to live in an area that still has an adult school, you probably receive an adult school catalog in the mail. If you perused the cooking, exercise, computer or craft classes looking for something that caught your eye, you were looking at the community interest classes. You probably checked the prices on these classes to see if you could afford them, and found the prices to be quite reasonable for the value. The modest fee you paid, if you took the class, helped pay for the cost of running the class; the fees you and the other students in the class paid covered the cost.

The class you took had some of the features of the community college noncredit courses described in part 1 of this series: There were no grades, no credits, and the focus was on learning. You could repeat the course if needed, and the class accommodated students of different levels of skill. However, your community interest class differed from a community college non-credit class because it did have a definite beginning and end, and you paid for it.

Community interest classes are in a certain sense the public face of adult schools, the feature most people know about. Because adult school catalogs are usually designed to attract people to the community interest classes, these classes are prominently featured, and because the fees are so reasonable, many people have taken a community interest adult school class at one time. This can cause a public relations problem for adult schools, to some extent. The strong association between the community interest classes and adult schools in the public mind, coupled with the understanding that adult schools are tax supported, can lead to confusion; adult schools get the undeserved reputation of offering frivolous recreational classes on the taxpayers’ dime.

This perception is completely false. The community interest classes are supported by fees. The mandated classes, which serve vulnerable Californians and mostly provide basic literacy instruction, are supported by taxes.

So community interest classes are all recreational, right? It’s good that the taxpayers aren’t paying for them, but they are still fluff?

Not really. Almost all the vocational education classes in adult schools are community interest classes. First aid and CPR classes that are needed to qualify for certain jobs are community interest. The class that leads to a food safety certificate for restaurant employees is a community interest class. The class that prepares students to pass the Certified Nursing Assistant class—that’s community interest too.

And there are some community interest classes that are not workforce related, but are pretty serious. Trainings on how to respond to a major disaster in your community are offered as community interest classes, for example.

The fact is, community interest classes have a marvelous serendipity to them. In a sense, the whole world is there to study for a reasonable fee, in both its fun and serious aspects.

Community interest classes are mostly left out of the consortium planning discussion. It is more or less assumed that they will continue to roll along as long as the adult school continues. That is true, but it is also true that when the mandated classes are severely defunded, the adult school, including the community interest classes, disappears. This happened in Oakland, which has a few scraps of its mandated programs left, but no more community interest classes.

And while the consortia are mainly understood to be working on pathways from the adult school to the community college, it would make just as much sense to create pathways from some adult school programs, like ESL or High School Diploma, to other community interest adult school programs with a job training focus, such as Certified Nursing Assistant.

Adult School Mandated Programs—State Funded Services for Vulnerable Californians:

 Mandated adult school programs are programs that, by law, are eligible for state funding. The programs are enumerated in California Education Code Section 41975, which can be viewed in full here:

Section 41975 enumerates ten programs: parenting, elementary and secondary basic skills , English as a Second Language, classes for immigrants in Citizenship, English, and workforce skills, programs for adults with disabilities, career technical education, programs for older adults, programs for apprentices, home economics, and health and safety education.

 The mandated programs are intended to provide services for vulnerable adults. Adults with low literacy and/or low income, immigrants who speak little or no English, adults with disabilities, and older adults are all populations that face significant challenges when it comes to accessing educational services. In addition to the more obvious economic and transportation barriers they face, they often feel uncomfortable in traditional school settings. Both native born and immigrant adults with low literacy levels may have bad memories of former school experiences, or have so little experience with formal education that a traditional classroom feels unfamiliar and overwhelming. The same may be true for adults with disabilities, while older adults may not feel comfortable in educational environments designed for younger learners. It is these populations that the noncredit model, which is used by community college noncredit programs and adult schools alike, is designed to serve.

Most adult school mandated programs follow the noncredit model closely, with an open entry/open exit registration system to make classes more accessible, a focus on learning and skills development rather than grades or credit, locations embedded in the community to make attending school easier for students with limited access to transportation, incorporation of review both  to accommodate new students and assure mastery of the material, and a commitment to serving students of different ages and abilities. The emphasis in adult school mandated classes is on breaking down barriers to learning. Classrooms are informal and welcoming, and a strong sense of community typically develops among the students.

In order to open the doors of education for low income students, adult school mandated classes, like community college noncredit classes, used to be offered free by law. In 2008, due to the budget crisis of that year, many of the laws governing adult schools were suspended in order to remove protections on adult school funding so that school districts, hard hit by budget cuts, could use adult school money to meet other budget obligations. Predictably, districts cut back adult school budgets severely in order to use the money for other programs, and some closed their adult schools altogether. Embattled by crippling budget cuts and faced with possible closure, some adult schools took advantage of the grey area created by the suspension of the laws and began charging for mandated classes. Even now, however, not all adult schools charge for mandated classes.

 In a certain sense, the AB 86 Regional Consortia are about the fate of the adult school mandated programs. Community colleges already have guaranteed funding for both their credit and non-credit programs; their funding structure has not been eliminated or radically changed, and they are not at risk. If mandated adult school programs can be saved, community interest adult school classes will continue to thrive.

But mandated adult school programs face an uncertain future. The protections on their funding that were removed in 2008 were never restored, even when the state’s economy began to rebound.

In 2013, the adult schools that managed to survive got some relief from relentless yearly budget cuts when the legislature included a Maintenance of Effort (MOE) provision in that year’s budget. The MOE required districts that still had adult schools to continue to spend the same amount on their adult schools in the 2013-23014 and 2014-2015 school years as they had spent in 2012-2013 school years. Obviously this hiatus is coming rapidly to a close. Beginning in July 2015, the plan is for adult schools to be funded through the regional consortia, with the funding to be determined by the individual consortium plans. The amount of funding and delivery system are yet to be determined; it is expected that the governor’s budget, due to come out in January, will provide more detail about funding. Those who work in adult schools are understandably on edge about what will happen between now and July 2015. School districts have to plan their budgets far in advance, and when adult school staff return from the winter break in January, they could be three months away from March 15 pink slips depending on what is in the budget and how their districts interpret it.

Ed. Code Section 41975, which enumerates the adult school programs that are eligible for state funding, is still on the books. However, like many other laws governing adult schools, it is still suspended. AB 86 provides that six of the ten programs enumerated in Section 41975 can be eligible for consortium planning: elementary and secondary basic skills, English as a Second Language, classes for immigrants in Citizenship, English, and workforce skills, programs for adults with disabilities, career technical education, and programs for apprentices. Parenting programs, programs for older adults, home economics and health and safety education are left out. SB 173, which recently passed into law, would originally have amended Section 41975 to eliminate them, but by the time SB 173 passed, the amendment to Section 41975 had been removed. However, since all money for adult school mandated programs will come through the consortia after 2015, the four programs excluded by AB 86 are likely to lose their funding next year unless something is done to save them.

It is among the mandated programs that we find the educational services that most directly support the K-12 schools, and where adult schools managed to survive, it was usually because their districts recognized their value in this regard. Schools recognized that classes in parenting and English as a Second Language gave parents skills they need to support their children’s school success.

However, adult schools complement the K-12 schools in another way because they assure that adults who did not get the chance to complete their education as children have the chance to acquire the skills they would have learned in the K-12 schools. Elementary and secondary basic skills programs provide the equivalent of an elementary and high school education for adults, and English as a Second Language classes also provide basic literacy skills in English for immigrants. Through adult schools, the state fulfills its commitment to a basic education for all Californians, a commitment which, for a variety of reasons, cannot always be met by the K-12 schools.

The acquisition of basic skills by adult learners also supports the success of children in the district, because many of the adults who complete basic skills programs are also parents. Parents who complete their elementary or secondary educations in adult school serve as models for their children and also pick up skills that allow them to help their children in school.

The only extant plan for continued funding for adult school mandated programs after July 2015 is a sketchy proposal by Governor Brown to fund them through the consortia, with all money for the consortia coming through the Community College Chancellor’s Office. This model raises many as yet unanswered questions about what the relationship of adult schools to their K-12 districts would be under this model. Adult school teachers who go to work every day on K-12 campuses or in buildings owned by the K-12 district (as all adult school buildings are) wonder if they will be reporting to work at the same location after 2015. They wonder who will sign their paychecks: will it still be the superintendent for their school district, or will the check be signed by someone at the community college? Will they be considered school district or community college employees?

Such questions are mostly unspoken, as teachers are encouraged not to think about them and just trust the AB 86 process. But questions that mirror those of teachers must be occurring to school districts as well. What will the relationship of the adult school to the school district be? How much control will the district have over the adult school? Who will be in charge of resolving conflicts that might arise? Unless these questions are addressed, there is a danger that the relationship between adult schools and their districts, already made shaky by categorical flexibility and its aftermath, might be further damaged. Policymakers who will be shaping the future of adult schools during the first half of 2015 need to look carefully at ways to make sure adult schools can continue their crucial role of complementing and supporting K-12 schools. Dedicated funding for adult schools that comes through school district budgets would be a key component of any plan to preserve adult school support for the K-12 mission.

The Need for Adult Literacy Services in California

In California Education Code Section 84757, the same 10 programs enumerated in Section 41975 as eligible for adult school funding are enumerated as eligible for noncredit community college funding. The language of the two code sections is exactly the same; it can be viewed here:

The fact that California Education Code establishes these programs as eligible for state funding for both adult schools and community colleges indicates that they were, at least at one time, significant state priorities. It is likely that the legislature intended local agencies to have some flexibility in deciding whether adult schools, community colleges, or both, should provide the designated services.

The following statistics are found on page 16 of a report prepared for the California Department of Education by WestEd in 2009 entitled “Adult Education in California: Strategic Planning Process Needs Assessment”:

  •  In 2009 about 5.3 million adult Californians lacked a high school diploma or General Education Development (GED) certificate.
  • About half of those 5.3 million adults, over 2.5 million, had educational attainments at below the 9th grade level.

 The 2012 LAO Report noted, on page 10:

  •  In 2009 adult schools and community colleges together served about 1.5 million students.

 The population of the state has grown significantly since 2009, so the number of adults needing literacy services has almost certainly grown proportionally.

Adult schools have  shrunk since 2009; adult school programs were cut continually, and decreased in size yearly, from 2008 to 2013, when the Maintenance of Effort mandate temporarily stabilized their funding.

Community colleges, and noncredit programs in particular, have not grown significantly since 2009; they are just beginning to recover from the effects of the great recession.

Adults with low levels of literacy are exactly the students both adult school mandated programs and community college noncredit programs were designed to serve. With more than five million people in need of these services, the efforts of both adult school mandated programs and community college noncredit programs are sorely needed, and both must be significantly expanded, if the educational needs of California’s adults are to be adequately met.

In the next installment of this series, we will look at how community colleges and adult schools currently divide the work of educating the state’s adults.

Coming Next: Who’s Doing What?


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