Adult Education Cuts Worry South L.A. Students, Teachers
"Save adult education," they shout, as they march around the school alongside relatives and teachers, cheering at passing cars. "Si se puede!"
The students at Jefferson High are just a handful of the 340,000 students enrolled in adult education across the Los Angeles area -- a program which greatly outpaces the student bodies of USC, UCLA, Cal State Los Angeles, and Cal State Long Beach combined, and a program that has found itself on the Los Angeles Unified School District's cutting board.
On March 13, district officials will decide whether to eliminate adult education entirely to plug a $557 million hole in their $6 billion budget. Officials postponed ruling on the future of adult education in February after students, city council members, and L.A. Unified alumni asked the district to reconsider.
"All my dreams will come down," said Acucena Urbina, a student who works as a housekeeper by day. "Well, not all my dreams -- all of our dreams,” she added, pointing to the crowd of students around her nodding in agreement.
Urbina shows up at night classes to improve her English skills and earn her GED.
English speakers get better jobs and face less discrimination, said Urbina, “so that’s why we’re here."
Night-cleaner Ismael Castro attends adult school in hopes of earning a better job.
“I want to be a teacher,” said Castro. “It’s my goal. It’s our goal – for better jobs, a better life.”
The students -- who arrive at Jefferson High School well after the high schoolers take off and leave as the janitors shut the lights -- protest at night so they can work during the day.
"I work in a factory as a seamstress," said student Margarita Leyva. "But I'd rather be a designer."
She said she was taking adult education classes to improve her English skills and move on to better things.
"I need to set an example for others," she added, mentioning her daughter.
Educators are concerned as well. Michael Parker, an ESL teacher, says the possibility of killing adult education worries him.
“Whatever they do, they need to find the funds to keep this program going,” said Parker.
He said that the threatened cuts aren’t getting enough attention from the public, given the importance of adult education for so many in Los Angeles.
“They are forgotten people,” he said, “They don’t really have a voice.”
Yet it’s the forgotten, voice-less students, the struggling workers and high-school dropouts who start their classes after everyone else leaves, that have also done the most to change their predicament. Night school students, who came in to adult school to learn basic English and job skills, have come out as champions for leading the fight to save the program.
They have worked with teachers to collect more than 200,000 signatures from supporters in a period of two weeks, log 1 million seconds of phone calls to legislators and school board members and arrange multiple demonstrations across the city urging the school board to reconsider.
Twenty eight-year-old Felix Solis helped arrange a March 7 protest at Jefferson High School.
"Actually this is my first time doing something like this," said Solis, a construction worker by day. Solis hopes one day to become a licensed construction worker, but also said that he would “like to continue” organizing rallies and fighting for various causes.
Yet the students could only spend so much time before getting back to their daily routine. The demonstration lasted 15 minutes.
“Only on break,” Leyva explained. The seamstress said that they had to go back to class so they could continue their lessons.
A brief moment, but students and teachers made their point. Passing cars honked in solidarity and TV crews dropped by to shoot the event.
“It’s the first act of its kind that I’ve seen here,” said adult school teacher and UTLA representative Sean Abajian. “People are doing things that are unprecedented.”
For a good cause, he continued. He says the math behind LA Unified’s reasoning doesn't add up.
"We serve over 37% of LAUSD students but draw only 2% of funding," said Abajian. He said that the district should promote such a cost-effective program rather than gut it.
“We need to change our priorities,” he added. “Students are always asking me why they’re opening so many schools when they’re firing teachers,” he continued. “We have school construction bonds that have money, but on the other hand they’re firing teachers and cutting all the programs.”
For students and teachers, priorities need to change fast. They say that putting their program on the line endangers them and their families.
Felix Solis said he wouldn't be the only one affected.
“All my relatives are in this school,” said Solis. “My father-in-law, my mother-in-law, my wife – always I think of my family.”
When asked what his family would do if the district closes school doors, he responded by saying that they don’t like to think about it.
“It’s hard for us because we don’t have too much money to pay for a private education,” he said.
Abajian and Parker agreed with Solis that more was on the line than just students.
"We talk about having 340,000 students, but of our students, all of those students have families,” said Abajian, “and their families will be impacted as well.”
“Many of the students are the parents of our K-12 children in the daytime,” said Parker. “Education produces a better parent.”
“They [adult students] are hard working contributing members of our society,” Parker continued.
He noted that cuts in Adult Education would also affect educators as well.
“All the way across the board” he answered. “I will probably be one who isn’t returning.”
Abajian said that cuts to adult education would have drastic effects in communities still reeling from the recession.
"The programs provide pathways out of poverty, pathways to better jobs, pathways to careers," he said. “The sad reality is that over 50% of adult Angelenos can’t read well enough to understand a job application."
"Our school system only cares for a fraction of them," he continued. "For them to take anything away from our program is outrages.”
Despite the potential cuts, the fact the fight has lasted past February bodes leaves those at Jefferson High School's adult education program with better hopes.
“I think they [LA Unified] thought they could get away with it,” said Abajian, adding that adult school programs had already been eliminated in around 50 school districts across the state.
“But they got quite a surprise,” he added.