Hundreds Protest L.A. Unified for Adult Education

Angelica Chavez protests outside the headquarters of the L.A. Unified School District | Photo: Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
Angelica Chavez protests outside the headquarters of the L.A. Unified School District | Photo: Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

In L.A., adult education could also be called immigrant integration. That's what I found out on Tuesday covering one of the largest non-teacher protests I'd seen outside L.A. Unified School District headquarters.

More than 500 people crowded the sidewalks at the district's building entrance forcing police to close off Beaudry Avenue. Most of the people were there to protest a proposal the district board of education is considering to zero out the adult education budget to help close a funding deficit. That could mean the closure of more than two-dozen centers and services to 350,000 people in L.A. Unified's boundaries. The vast majority of students take English as a Second Language (ESL) and high school equivalency classes. Another group was there to protest planned cuts to school district day care.

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Most in the crowd looked and sounded Mexican, Central American and other iterations of Spanish speaking immigrants. If weeks go by and I haven't spoken Spanish, getting it going again feels like cranking a Model T's engine. That's kinda how I felt as I walked up to Jenny Medal as I heard her and her friend chatting in a Mexico City lilt.

OK, can we speak English, I asked. Yeah, that's better, Medal said after she and her friend giggled and told me to interview the other. It turns out Medal is the Evans adult school student council president. She's a second generation adult education student. Both her parents took ESL classes after immigrating here. She dropped out of high school in Burbank after she got pregnant. Now she wants to earn her high school diploma. She said her classmates are from many different countries.

"Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Spain, Russian, Armenians. They're here to learn English and I met a lot of them that came here without knowing one word in English and now they actually can communicate between them," Medal said.

It appears that adult education is one of the few immigrant integration programs there are in this country. That's the sense I got after walking across the street to a large group chanting their throats out, "Save our school!" Angelica Chavez held up a large sign with those handwritten words. She immigrated here from Michoacán two decades ago. She lives in Huntington Park and started taking ESL classes that have now led to high school equivalency classes. "Because the thing I love most is talking to people and especially in the languages necessary," Chavez said.

As I looked at the crowds of people, mostly in their 20s and 30s, I wondered if immigration status was a relevant question. We have these discussions a lot in the KPCC newsroom. In the end I decided that if this were an immigrant rights march I'd ask. But this was a protest to preserve funding for an essential educational program. Adult education is job training, it's interpersonal relations, it's personal growth and it's adults learning to interact with schools and local government. So far in the United States an education is not reserved for citizens. Maybe the undocumented have a different experience learning the language, culture and civics in this country.

Adult education teacher Steven Rothblatt | Photo: Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
Adult education teacher Steven Rothblatt | Photo: Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

OK, I'll approach some of the non-Latinos at this protest to get their stories. That led me to longtime adult education teacher Steven Rothblatt. He suggested that for legal and illegal immigrants alike, the U.S. sets aside few resources for people to learn the language and thrive.

"There are many people who speak Korean as a first language, there are people from China, there are people from Russia, there are people from all over the world who are coming here and people shouldn't assume that everyone's here illegally. There are a lot of people who are here legally and need to learn English, they came here, they emigrated and now they need to learn English. And what are they going to do if there's no place to do it?"

Amid chants and protests outside, there was no culminating vote on adult education's budget that day inside the L.A. Unified board chambers. The board of education delayed a vote, moved in part by the protests, and directed the superintendent to come back in a few weeks with alternatives to cutting adult classes and preschool.

Poet and KPCC Reporter Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

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