Oakland School Budget Cuts Pit Primary Vs. Adult Education

By Paul Gackle
Thursday January 28, 2010 - 08:29:00 AM
With the help of Oakland’s adult education program, Rigoberto Alvarado, who arrived in the United States with no knowledge of English, worked his way up to a managerial position at the Waterfront Hotel.
Paul Gackle
With the help of Oakland’s adult education program, Rigoberto Alvarado, who arrived in the United States with no knowledge of English, worked his way up to a managerial position at the Waterfront Hotel.

Rigoberto Alvarado says he’s living the American Dream. He came to the United States with very little money and no knowledge of English and worked his way up to a manager position at Oakland’s Waterfront Hotel.  

Alvarado says he owes his ascent to Oakland’s adult education program. However, due to budget cuts, the next immigrant seeking to obtain job skills might not be so fortunate.  

The Governing Board of the Oakland Unified School District was expected to approve a $4.5 million cut to the funding of adult education in their annual budget at Wednesday night’s regular meeting. The cuts are part of an effort to absorb a $27 million shortfall in this year’s budget without significantly impacting primary education. While adult education might be the only educational program that faces dramatic cuts this year, the impact could be detrimental for a large segment of the city’s population.  

“Nobody gets involved in education to make cuts,” said Superintendent Tony Smith as he presented his budget recommendations at the school board’s Dec. 16 meeting. “Our primary goal is to protect K–12 education.”  

The cuts are the most recent in a series of hits to Oakland’s adult education program that will see its budget reduced by 50 percent since the 2008–09 school year.  

Until last year, a fixed portion of a school district’s budget was allocated directly to adult education by the state. But in last February’s state budget act, funding was slashed by 20 percent across California, and school districts were given the option of reallocating money traditionally allotted to adult education. Consequently, many school districts facing budget crises are now using the funds to stop the bleeding in primary education. Some districts, like Santa Rosa and West Marin, have cut adult education all together. 

“The budget act of 2009 has pitted the needs of K-12 education against adult education,” said Brigitte Marshall, director of Oakland Adult and Career Education, who oversees the city’s adult education program. “So of course if you are a K–12 district your primary priority is the education of children.”  

Marshall said the cuts will affect a wide cross section of Oakland’s population. It isn’t only adults seeking GEDs and high school diplomas who benefit from adult education, but also immigrants, refugees, parents and senior citizens. 

The number of students enrolled in adult education classes in Oakland has already been cut in half since last year’s budget passed. Marshall said it could drop by another 50 percent after the next round of cuts is implemented. 

She said a top priority is to ensure that none of the GED or high school diploma classes are cut. But in a city where the percentage of adults with less than a high school diploma is high—in West Oakland 44 percent, 35 percent in East Oakland—she argues that these classes need to be expanding to slow down an impending social disaster. 

“That’s a crisis,” she said. “In the last year we had 180 people who obtained a GED or a high school diploma—which is to be celebrated—but compared to the needs in the greater Oakland community, it’s a drop in the bucket.” 

But cuts will need to be made somewhere, meaning classes that provide social opportunities for seniors will be eliminated, English as a second language classes will be reduced, and a significant number of staff members, instructors and site administrators, will lose their jobs.  

Marshall said thAT ESL classes will be cut by 50 percent. As a result, there will be no summer, weekend or afternoon time slots offered. 

Students attending English classes at Neighborhood Centers Adult School in downtown Oakland obtain a range of language skills from basic vocabulary to reading and writing.  

In one classroom, a teacher points at pictures on an overhead projector with a stick; his students, representing a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds—Latino, East African, South Asian—call out the words mother, baby, children, family. 

“How many children?” the teacher asks. 


“How many babies?” 


In another class, students learn how to fill out a job application. Working in groups of two, the students ask each other: “What is your name? Where do you live? What is your Social Security number?”  

It was here that Rigoberto Alvarado acquired the skills he needed to land a quality job. Alvarado came to the United States when he was 21 to flee a civil war in El Salvador. He lived with six people in his brother’s West Oakland apartment, sleeping on the floor. 

He found work at the Waterfront Hotel in Jack London Square as a houseman, setting up banquet rooms for events. But the job was difficult; he couldn’t communicate with his co-workers. So he enrolled in some adult education courses to learn English. He was eventually promoted to food server. 

But Alvarado wasn’t satisfied. He returned to adult education to find out if there were any additional skills he could pick up. Soon, he was taking computer classes, learning how to open files, use Microsoft Word and make spreadsheets. 

One day, his boss had to go out of town, so he put Alvarado in charge. And when he returned, he promoted Alvarado to assistant manager.  

“That’s why we call it the American Dream. When I came here I had all the opportunities to get what I needed to live here,” he said. “In the classrooms we got the opportunity to practice work, we learned how to communicate at work, how to read.” 

Classes like these will continue to be offered, but they will fill up quickly. Students are already turned away on daily basis. Moreover, the classes will no longer have an open entry and exit policy—meaning they will lose the flexibility required to meet the turbulent schedules of many immigrants. Alvarado, for example, had to stop and re-start his education several times because of changes to his work schedule. 

“A student may start in January and then have a work change, get switched to a night shift or something, and will have to stop out,” said Burr Guthrie, site administrator at Neighborhood Centers Adult School, adult education’s version of a principal. “If you give up that seat, it’s going to be harder to get back in now.”  

Parental education classes are also going to bear the brunt. For almost three years, Maria Cabrera has attended one of the ESL classes offered at 25 different Oakland schools specifically designed for parents.  

While her second-grader is busy in class at Garfield Elementary School, Cabrera sits in a portable classroom reading a children’s book, “First Grade Takes a Test” with her classmates. 

Cabrera, and the other students in this class, are learning English, but more important, they are learning how to interact with their children in the context of what is being taught at school. They learn how to summarize what they are reading, recognize verb tenses, ask questions and make clarifications.  

Students whose parents attend the classes have been scoring an average of 19 percentage points higher on standardized tests than the second-language students whose parents aren’t enrolled. 

Although none of the parental education classes are likely to be cut, many of the teachers will be. The majority of the classes’ instructors are hourly workers with years of experience and familiarity with the schools they teach at. After the cuts are implemented, the classes will be taught by some of the 64 full-time adult education contract teachers who might not have experience in teaching this particular course.  

“A risk is that our classes may continue, but the quality could drop dramatically,” said Sue Pon, the program administrator for parental education. 

And the student-teacher relationship is the central component of what makes the parental education classes so valuable.  

Cabrera, for example, recalls a time when her daughter was struggling with tests. She felt comfortable turning to her teacher, Wendi Olson, whom she’s had as an instructor for nearly three years, for advice.  

Cabrera said her daughter had a difficult time filtering out environmental noise. After tests, her classmates were allowed to play and Cabrera’s daughter would shift her attention from the test to other kids. Olson coached Cabrera on how to address her concerns with her daughter’s teacher at their parent-teacher meeting. Now, the kids play outside when they finish their tests, and her daughter’s grades have improved. 

“I told Wendi I had this problem, and she solved it,” she said.  

Pon said the parental education classes are essential to fulfilling a primary goal of the Oakland Unified School District—getting parents more involved. 

“In a lot of cultures, parents are not expected to be involved in their child’s education; that’s left to the professionals,” she said. “Our classes get parents in the door; it gets them involved.” 

Director Alice Spearman, who serves Oakland’s District 7, planned to vote in favor of the budget plan that will cut funding to adult education to minimize the blow to primary education.  

“It’s sad, but that’s probably the only program that will see a significant impact. I hate to see that” she said. “The state just doesn’t value it. When they changed the structure of funding and we had to cut over $20 million, we decided we didn’t want to cut K–12.”  

Spearman said she understands how lives are affected by adult education—her own life was. After graduating from San Jose State, Spearman returned to Oakland with few tangible job skills. She found herself unemployed, with a baby and living on welfare.  

Spearman decided to take an adult education class to perfect her typing skills. From there, an instructor encouraged her to enroll in a state-sponsored nursing program that eventually launched her career.  

Like Alvarado, Spearman links her success to the skills she obtained from adult education. 

“If I hadn’t gone to that adult-ed course, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity. They enabled me to have a life,” she said.