Adult School Up Against The Blackboard

Evans Community Adult School finds itself caught in a nasty Catch 22. California's high unemployment rate is forcing many people to go back to school and learn new skills before they re-enter the workforce. But shrinking government revenues are also forcing the adult school to downsize, meaning hundreds of those people are getting turned away.

Sitting in downtown Los Angeles where Sunset Boulevard begins its long journey west, Evans is the largest stand-alone adult school in the nation. And it sits at the very nexus of California's interrupted dream, where good, affordable education meets the down economy and bad governance.

As part of the Los Angeles Unified School District, Evans is being desiccated. LAUSD is facing an estimated $640 million budget deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Evans provides adult basic education, high school and GED classes, as well as specialized Career Technical Education. Its teacher hours have been cut by 41 percent. That has forced administrators to eliminate Sunday classes and 5:45 a.m. weekday classes, crucial offerings for adults looking to fit learning around tight work and family schedules. Evans also shortened its summer semester last year from 8 weeks to 6 weeks and does not know if it will have a summer session at all this year. Class times have been reduced from 2 1/2 hours to 2 hours, and recently, Evans even lost its librarian.

All these cuts have forced the school to put many applicants on a waiting list. "We've had a lot of practice this year saying no," said Evans' Principal Danette Roe.

Last fall the waiting list was about 400 applicants deep. That has come down some for the winter term due to an infusion of federal money, but Roe said she does not know how long that funding will last.

Roe's fears are backed up by an analysis from the California Legislative Analyst's Office, which predicts the state's reliance on one-time funding solutions over the last 2 years has set the state's education budget on course to plummet off a "funding cliff." According to the LAO's January report, the governor's 2010-2011 budget will leave K-12 education, where most adult school funds originate, $5.8 billion below 2007-2008 levels. The prediction of a perilous funding collapse comes as a grim counterbalance to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's January State of the State address commitment to spare K-12 education from further cuts.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell made a tangential reference to adult education in his January State of Education address, noting the success of Career Technical Education, an emerging sector of adult school curricula. But he otherwise made no direct mention of adult education and made no commitment of support.

"Most districts, and this one, have overlooked adult ed," said LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines. "I am looking very strongly at how do we keep a strong adult education program. But they have to understand that it is going to be different and that I don't have anything to say about that. It's the economy in this state and in this nation."

In the meantime, the cuts have resulted in a significant enrollment decline at Evans Community Adult School. From July 1 to December 31, 2009 about 11,000 students were enrolled at the school. That is down from more than 14,000 the year before.

Hoping for A Spot
In Evans' small counseling office, three advisers were meeting with a steady stream of applicants on a recent Wednesday morning.

Imelda Sandoval was there with her 1-year-old son meeting with adviser Victor Huey. Sandoval works at a jewelry store downtown, but wants to go back to school to get her high school diploma in order to get a better job in sales.

Sandoval, who moved to L.A. from Guatemala in 1992, knows first-hand the importance of adult education. When she first arrived in L.A., she made little money selling flowers. She enrolled at Evans 8 years ago, and after she learned English, Sandoval said she was able to get a job working at the jewelry store, where she doubled her earnings. She said her husband was also trained at an occupational adult school as an automotive electrician.

As she sat with a counselor to talk about the steps she needs to take in order to re-enroll, Sandoval said she knows spots are scarce but is hoping to be back at Evans within the year.

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Feeling The Pain
Across the blacktop yard from the counseling office and around the corner from a row of rusty lockers, with the 110 freeway roaring behind a fence, sits a media center where teachers go to get books and other supplies to do their jobs in the classroom. Inside, Angelo D'Elia, an elder statesman who has worked at Evans since 1969, describes where he has seen the pain.

"We used to have 160 teachers. Now we have 100," D'Elia said. "This [media center] used to be open from 7 in the morning to 9 at night and was serving the teachers and, in that way, serving the students. But today, the coordinator doesn't have as many hours to work here. What that means, is that door is locked for several hours during the day and teachers can't get the materials they might want to have."

Lois Comeau, a 36-year veteran of adult education, teaches English as a Second Language. As she sat grading homework assignments, Comeau said the materials problem has gotten pretty bad. "We're worried about paper. We're worried about clicks of the Xerox machine. We're searching around for pens and pencils and paper clips."

Comeau said she has also felt the impact of fewer classes. "I'm not one to turn students away, but they must have a chair. I often have close to 50 people, and I can accommodate 45 in my room," Comeau said.

D'Elia coordinates a state testing program that enables Evans to receive federal funds as students meet certain testing benchmarks. He can see the bind Evans is in just by looking at the number of benchmarks he submits to the state.

"When we first started this, about 10 years ago, we would earn something like 9,500 points in one year. Now, we're in the 8,000 point category," he said.

Karen McLoughlin has been teaching for 25 years in the high school program and also counsels students at Evans. McLoughlin said her office recently lost two counselors to budget cuts.

Sitting behind the desk in her office, McLoughlin points to a stack of envelopes, paperwork for students referred to Evans by other high schools in L.A. "This is how I feel it," she said. "Even though the resources are more limited, the students keep coming."

In the middle of our interview, Roe paused to answer a call about Evans' campus security staffing. "We have fewer security people," she said. "When someone's out, maybe we don't have someone to back them up."

Roe said the cuts have not just taken a bite out of teacher hours, but from office staff, too. "We used to be able to pay overtime for our [office] staff to come in and help answer the phones and do registration. Well we don't have any overtime this year, so we've had to change and we rotate people," Roe said.

Evans: A Strong Legacy of Success
Despite the apocalyptic litany of cuts at Evans, there's no dearth of stories about how the school has provided Angelenos with chances to learn more and earn more since it opened in 1931.

Juan Anoguera is a quintessential example. Anoguera fled civil war in Nicaragua in the late 1980s. He landed in Los Angeles with little education and no English, and quickly found his way to Evans.

"Just to make it simple," he said, "to have Evans and the education that was provided during the years that I came, I can see it right now. I can see how I can teach my daughter, who is 5 years old, how to become a better student, how to be a successful kindergartner."

Anoguera's teaching prowess extends much further than his own daughter. He came back to Evans in 1999 to become a teacher and has since become the school's cynosure, it's north star, a man who works non-stop, advises the school's student council, holds fundraiser after fundraiser, and buoys everyone's hopes.

He believes deeply in adult education and speaks passionately about it. "I think adult education is the key to the future. And if we don't provide education to the parents, and to the children, they won't have the same opportunities that I had when I came to the country."

But even Anoguera has felt the tug at his morale of late. He said he worries about working people that can no longer attend after the elimination of the Sunday and early weekday morning classes. "Those people don't have the same opportunities anymore. Those people can't go home and help their children with their ABC's or [teach them] how to write a sentence. Sadly, I think it's going to reflect in the future," he said.

Natividad Rodriguez is one of Anoguera's protégés. He dropped out of high school at age 15 after his father died. Rodriguez said he was forced to work in order to support his family. Now the 24-year old has done a stint as Evans' student council president and is set to graduate with his high school diploma in June.

Rodriguez said Evans is so important to him, he even traded a good job as a materials management technician at a hospital for a job that pays half as much, but allows him enough time to come to Evans, study and finish high school.

"I promised my mom I would get her the high school diploma with my name on it...I'll be the second in the family to graduate high school," Rodriguez said.

Green Shoots
D'Elia, Comeau, McLoughlin, Principal Roe, and the younger Juan Anoguera share a combined 141 years in adult education, most of those years spent at Evans Community Adult School.

While they all describe the situation at the school as the most dire they have ever seen it, their tired voices belie a stolid determination and optimism uncanny to behold.

Each of these career educators have had to become career optimists, and they go on at length about the importance of adult education, and Evans' role in providing it.

Despite her concern that the school's recent budgets have been supported by one-time injections of cash, Roe put a fine polish on the news that Evans recently received $1 million in federal Workforce Investment Act money. She said it will allow her to open up a few more classes at the beginning of March. "We're up and down," Roe said, "but that flexibility is another key to adult education. When we do get the money, we can respond right away, open up the classes where we need them, serve the students and keep going."

Roe said the ranks of students enrolling in Evans' distance learning program continue to grow. For overflow ESL students, Evans offers DVD's and tapes for students to use on their own. "That's very helpful to sustain their desires to learn, and that there's hope [of getting into Evans in the future]," she said.

Evans has also expanded its Career Technical Education program over the last several years. That includes state-accredited classes like pharmacy tech and medical assistance, which cost between $200 and $500 dollars. That is a minimal cost compared to private schools that charge thousands and thousands of dollars, said McLoughlin.

There has always been a difference between expectation and reality, even when California's education system was at its peak, veteran educator Angelo D'Elia said. "Even back [in the 1970's and 1980's] I remember people saying, 'I've always wanted to come to America, and I've imagined it would be like this and like that.' And then when they get here it's not like this or like that," he said, adding, "They always find a way to make that dream become something other than what they thought it was going to be."

With a nod to the new normal, D'Elia concluded with his characteristic optimism. "I think we really serve a purpose in this community, have done so for many many years. And I think we're still going to."

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