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Adults struggling to learn face new challenge

In choosing whether to cut education for children or grown-ups, L.A. Unified needs focus on the young, but sacrificing adults is tragically short-sighted.

April 28, 2012|Steve Lopez
  • Demonstrators rally at the Van Nuys Government Center to protest LAUSD plans to cut adult education programs.
Demonstrators rally at the Van Nuys Government Center to protest LAUSD… (Jay L. Clendenin, Los Angeles…)

I'd been sitting back, fielding the occasional pitch for a column, but telling people it was a little too soon to write about what might happen to adult education in L.A. Unified.

Sure, the district has threatened to make big cuts, or even eliminate the program. But education funding is so insane in California that it's hard to know where things will end up.

And, as the parent of a third-grader in L.A. Unified, I have to ask this question: When money is tight, what's the core mission of a school district — to educate children or offer an assist to adults?

The former, I think, but having to scale back either would be tragic and cost us all in the end.

Still, the passionate pitches for adult ed kept coming my way, and they made an excellent point. With roughly a quarter of a million students currently enrolled in adult ed, do we really want to bulldoze their best chance at earning bigger paychecks and contributing more taxes to pay for public institutions such as — yes, education?

One adult ed teacher put me in touch with a former student of hers, saying he was just one among the countless success stories she'd seen. Javier Pinales, a student in the late 1980s, went on to East L.A. College and then graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in business administration.

"I grew up in Mexico and when I moved here, the first thing I needed to do was learn English," said Pinales, 41, who took ESL classes and got his GED from adult ed before going on to college.

He left the business world in 2003 after returning to school for a credential. He wanted to be an adult ed teacher.

"I want you to meet Jilma," Pinales told me one day last week when I visited him in the Huntington Park High School bungalow where he now teaches. Jilma Barrera, who fled the war in Nicaragua in the 1970s, sometimes arrives late to class because of doctor appointments, and she's often in pain caused by Lupus.

"I'm determined to get my GED," said Barrera, who wants to go on to become a nurse.

Pinales' students range in age from their late 20s to mid-60s. Gloria Garcia, 63, takes the bus to school or walks three miles. She lost a garment factory job after 15 years, she said, and now wants to become an elder care therapist because she thinks there'll be more job stability there.

"When I came in three months ago, I didn't know a lot," said Emilia Acua, one of 10 family members who share a unit in a trailer park. "But now I'm sure to pass the GED test, and I want to go to college to become a nurse."

Pinales' students told of juggling family obligations and jobs so they can squeeze in school, some of them taking two three-hour classes daily. You couldn't help but be inspired by the spirit of self-improvement in that classroom, and there are tens of thousands more students like these across the city struggling to learn English and vocational skills and become more productive members of society. Many are in their late teens and early 20s, trying to get high school diplomas they never got because of family obligations or mistakes they now regret. Others say they want to learn English to better serve their children's interests and monitor their progress in school.

But there are also thousands of native-born students trying to reposition themselves in a tight and changing economy, and some of the stories are more surprising than others.

"I'm 53, moved around a lot, went to high school in Manhattan Beach and dropped out in my 11th year," said Kathrin Middleton, an actress and the wife of Richard Middleton, executive producer of "The Artist."

She felt a degree of shame as a dropout, Middleton said, and began thinking seriously a few years ago about "wanting to clear this up, and make it right and go on to college." So now she drops her daughter off at kindergarten in the morning, and then goes to the Rinaldi Adult School to work on her GED.

"And now here are all these rumblings about how there might not be adult ed anymore. I think it's a shame, not for me but for everybody. It's going to hurt the city and state tremendously if people can't continue their educations."

L.A. Unified board President Monica Garcia, who says she reluctantly voted to chop adult ed and has earned the wrath of advocates, told me she hopes at least half to three-fourths of the current program can be saved. It will depend on a new accounting of state revenues, possible concessions by L.A. Unified teachers, and whether Gov. Jerry Brown's tax increase plan and an L.A. parcel tax proposal are passed. Garcia also thinks the district should consider charging a nominal fee for classes that are now free.

I still think kids have to come first, but it would be tragic to lose adult ed.

Nevertheless, we once again wait to hear which penny-wise but pound-foolish cuts will have to be made for the next school year, certain of nothing, but determined, it seems, to once more sabotage our own best chance of economic recovery.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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