Original article in El Observador.
The California State Senate proclaimed April 3 to 9 as “Adult Education Week,” at a time when significant program changes are already underway. These reforms should alter the long-standing public perception of Adult Education and its efforts to meet the critical need to address income inequality and regional workforce development.
More than 300 adult schools and community colleges throughout California are equipped to assist students in obtaining a high school diploma, learning to read, write and speak English, developing the skills to become a U.S. citizen, learning the cultural, business and education norms necessary for economic advancement, and gain short-term career training. All of these programs can also propel an adult student towards the kinds of certifications or college degrees that can lift families from poverty and develop a workforce that sustains regional economic growth. Nowhere is that more apparent than here, in the Silicon Valley, where the income divide widens as low skilled jobs evaporate, and higher skilled jobs go unfilled because of an under-prepared workforce.
In 2013, the legislature passed Assembly Bill 86, charging 71 regional consortia around the state with improving adult education in their respective region. Legislators handed educators a challenge: devise plans that generate results. Two years later, Assembly Bill 104 allocated funding to implement the regional plans with a promise of additional future funding for consortia programs that do produce results.
Santa Clara County, while a poster-child for the Bay Area’s increased affluence since the Great Recession, is also a place where the economic divide can be especially stark and disturbing – notably in East San Jose. Over 50% of county residents speak a language other than English at home, and although many immigrants are highly educated and drive the economy, others are marginalized by language, lack of skills, and immigration status.
With some of the most successful high schools in the state, the region also sees significant numbers of dropouts, disproportionately the children of immigrants or from families struggling economically. Acknowledgement of the hollowing out of the middle-class is common; specific remedies are rare. The alignment of the adult education and community college systems – strengthened by recent legislation – is uniquely positioned to provide solutions.
In San Jose, one of the most diverse cities in the nation, California’s third largest such consortia is one year into an ambitious three-year plan to create a more efficient and results-driven adult education program through a collaboration of resources that extends beyond school classrooms and into the community. The South Bay Consortium for Adult Education (SBCAE) launched in 2014 to serve the more than 30,000 adult learners in Santa Clara County.
Among them is 44-year-old San Jose resident Martha Perez-Belardes, a mother of four who dropped out of high school at the age of 16 due to debilitating mental health issues. Her return to a formal education was further obscured by a lengthy abusive relationship and struggles with chemical dependency and other health issues.
She returned to school a few years ago with the goal to pass the high school equivalency test and build college-readiness skills. She enrolled at Campbell Adult Education, where teachers and advisors provided the support she needed, and worked with college staff to assure the smooth transition to a community college. Today she is successfully attending San Jose City College with plans to get an Associate of Arts degree in Administrative Justice, a stepping stone to her greater goal of transferring to a university for a pre-law degree, and then on to law school.
SBCAE members include five adult schools, and four community colleges: Santa Clara Adult Education , Campbell Adult and Community Education Silicon Valley Adult Education Milpitas Adult Education School , East Side Adult Education , San Jose City College, Evergreen Valley College, West Valley College, and Mission College.
Governor Brown and the State Legislature expect results from this regional appropriation of approximately $16 million. Funds were applied to a series of specific measurable objectives, such as: Number of adult learners served by the consortium that demonstrate improved literacy skills, completion of high school diploma or equivalency, completion of college certificates or degrees, job placement and/or improved wages.
Adults entering the SBCAE Adult Education programs this year will be supported by foundational services that facilitate immigrant integration, develop learning and career paths, teach basic skills and prepare for a high school diploma or equivalency program, and learn 21st century skills. Operating under the theme of “No Wrong Door,” all South Bay adults seeking to advance their educational and career goals can do so regardless of income, prior education and personal circumstances.
The new system offers participants multiple paths of entry toward their goals, with each partner institution provided with an Access Specialist advisor to guide them to all of the services available. Working with community-based organizations, city immigration resource offices and churches, consortium members use plan components such as a personalized service plan for each student.
“The program was always focused on building a better future for me and my family, and that empowered me to think that way too, and to have enough confidence to charge ahead and meet my goals,” according to Perez- Belardes.