Last year, nearly 2.6 million adults in California enrolled in adult education as their program of choice. With so many options available to adult learners -- community colleges, private post-secondary schools, four-year colleges and universities as well as instruction offered through community-based organizations -- one might ask why so many adults voluntarily chose to attend adult school.

For those who are familiar with the diversity and flexibility of adult education programs, the answer is quite simple -- adult education programs respond to the local needs of their communities by providing meaningful and relevant instructional and training programs.

California has more than 400 districts that operate one or more adult school programs. Adult education programs serve more than 65 percent of the adult students enrolled in non-credit literacy programs throughout the state. With a 25 percent non-English proficiency rate among the California adult population, adult schools play a key role in providing access to literacy instruction.

Despite the funding inequities, a lack of awareness, antiquated attendance requirements imposed by the state and programmatic restrictions not found in any other post-secondary educational program, adult education continues to attract hundreds of thousands of new adult students to its programs every year.

A rich history

Adult education could be considered one of the state's first alternative programs. Long before the conception of continuation and charter schools, adult schools were providing an alternative to the traditional high school curriculum.

Adult education has a rich history of providing instruction to immigrants seeking to integrate into American culture. English instruction, citizenship classes and high school completion courses met local and regional needs in the early 1900s, when immigrants from around the world came to California seeking a better life. During World War II, many veterans returned home to complete their high school studies through adult education courses. In the 1970s, waves of Southeast Asian refugees turned to adult schools for English literacy instruction. In the 1990s, in response to welfare reform legislation, adult schools implemented successful short-term vocational education programs. And when tragedy struck on Sept. 11, adult school programs were accessible to the thousands of displaced workers who lost their jobs without warning or reason.

Lifelong learning

The adult education option reflects a growing alternative to traditional postsecondary education. Many adults are more interested in jobs than college credits. Many others, who are currently under-employed, enroll in high school completion or equivalency programs, knowing that their chances of promotion will increase with additional schooling. Still others consider adult education their lifelong learning opportunity -- no application fees, no semesters -- just instruction and training.

On the average adult school campus, you will probably not find tennis courts or a gymnasium. What you will find are programs offering morning, afternoon, evening and even weekend courses. You will find adult education courses offered on regular school campuses, in strip malls, retirement homes, the YMCA, homeless shelters and even on Indian reservations. Similarly, you will find adult education administrators serving on local Workforce Investment Boards and playing a key role in local One-Stop centers throughout the state.

A transformed landscape

Unlike K-12 programs, adult programs are not compulsory. Students enroll, in classes voluntarily, knowing that if they don't find what they need, they can leave without losing tuition fees or credits. Students come because they find meaning and relevance in their instruction and training.

Known best for their programs for high school completion and English as a Second Language, the landscape of adult education has been transformed dramatically in recent years. Adult education is not simply an evening program for high school dropouts and new American immigrants, which it continues to proudly serve. Adult education has matured into a comprehensive, well-articulated, student-centered post-secondary institution with fully credentialed teachers and highly qualified administrators.

In nearly every community, there is a growing awareness about the success of adult education programs. When Community Based English Tutoring (CBET) funding was made available to school districts with English language learners, school districts turned to adult schools to develop and implement parent literacy instruction. Recent studies indicate that elementary schools with CBET programs for parents housed on the campus during the school day have higher API scores.

More parents than ever are taking courses on K-12 campuses thanks to adult education programs in parenting, computer instruction and English literacy. Adult education is the program of choice for older adults, many of whom are retired and do not need college credits or don't want to be bothered with application fees and waiting lists. They find adult education classes stimulating, relevant and practical.

A local success story

The story of Lester James exemplifies the success of adult education and its students. Lester was born in Farrell, Penn. in 1938. Before he turned 6 years old, he lost his mother to illness. Consequently, he missed out on kindergarten. Raised primarily by his older bother and sister, Lester's first schooling began at the age of 8, when he was enrolled in first grade. He repeated first and second grades twice, and by the time he was 17 years old, he had finally reached the seventh grade.

In December 1955, a few days before his 18th birthday, Lester dropped out of school and joined the military. He served his country faithfully for four years, and received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Marine Corps. Lester was then hired by a trucking firm. One day, while driving a truck, he suffered an accident that caused severe head injuries, leading to epileptic seizures. He was unable to continue to drive and became unemployed.

Lester married and eventually moved to Fresno to be close to family. Throughout the years, Lester had always wanted to return to school and receive his high school diploma. In 1996, he was reading the Fresno Bee one day and saw an advertisement for free classes at Fresno Adult School. He decided to enroll in the High School Diploma Program. Slightly more than 40 years after he had left school, Lester was now back on track to pursue a lifelong dream.

After five years of hard work, determination and perseverance, Lester succeeded, at the age of 62, in completing his studies to earn his high school diploma. After receiving his high school diploma, Lester enrolled in computer training courses to become computer literate.

Ladders of opportunity

Lester James is one of thousands of adults in California who chose adult education as their school of choice. There is a lot of talk these days in Sacramento about "ladders of opportunity." We must always keep in mind that for more than two million people every year, the first rung on the ladder is adult education, without which they could not take the next step.

Mark Wilson is principal of Cesar Chavez Adult Education Center.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Association of California School Administrators
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

Copyright ©  All Rights Reserved.
Related sites: