Why does it matter?
By Lucy Ochoa
It's 6:30 pm on Thursday, the last day of school before the weekend. About twenty students rush into a room at the main campus of San Mateo Adult School, greeting each other in different languages. After signing the attendance sheet they choose seats behind of one of the long wooden tables that face the whiteboard.
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Learning English is the challenge that brings these students together whenever their schedule allows it. Despite their different origins, all of them share two characteristics: they are adults and their native language is not English.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California and data from the U.S Census Bureau, this state has over 10 million immigrants, the largest number in the United States. Californian immigrants are, mostly, working-age adults. Their most common language spoken is Spanish followed distantly by Chinese.
Adult school programs are how these adults improve their language skills and approach to the American society. However, since 2009, these programs have been affected by budget cuts.
ESL (English as a Second Language) is one of the 9 core programs offered by adult schools, and most of time, it is the gateway course to assimilate one into the new culture. These classes integrate all the language skills: reading, writing, listening, speaking and pronunciation; in units related to important topics for adult students as finances, society, house and home, community, etc. Every year more than 1.2 million students benefit from one of the 340 adult schools across California.
In the second row sits 32-year-old Gerber Gonzalez from El Salvador. His first language is Spanish. He has been living in the United States for about 16 years. This semester, after an assess test to evaluate his English proficiency, he has been placed in the ESL Low Advanced level.
Since 1992 the ESL program has consisted of seven courses from beginning literacy through high advanced level. Gonzalez, who works in a Mexican restaurant at the San Francisco International Airport, has been taking ESL classes at San Mateo Adult School nearly for a year. His work schedule often changes. Like most of classmates, he has to prioritize his jobs above going to school. For this reason being able to choose between morning or evening ESL classes is convenient. “Last semester I took some classes in the morning and some classes at night,” he says. “The schedule is flexible, it works for me.”
He wants to finish the program, get his high school certificate and start his own business. Language proficiency is essential. “I don’t say that I don´t want to speak Spanish, but English opens a lot of doors that otherwise will remain closed,” he says.
In fact, according to state guidelines governing this program, ESL courses help non-native English speakers to open “doors” by equipping students "with the language and cultural proficiencies required for the eventual fulfillment of personal, vocational, academic and citizenship goals so that they may participate fully in American society.”
Jessica Giambruno, who teaches ESL low advanced class at San Mateo Adult School, says teaching adults is challenging, but satisfying because the students are self-motivated. “I don’t know any teacher that is here just for a job,” Giambruno says. “Everybody cares deeply. Students really care about education, about school, about community.”
But financial considerations may determine whether or not districts like San Mateo continue to offer adult education classes. In 2009 the California Department of Education gave K-12 school districts the flexibility to divert adult education funds to other educational purposes. Since then, adult schools have been fighting for survival.
Tim Doyle, assistant director of the San Mateo Adult School, says that because of a budget crisis in the educational system, between 50 and 60 schools were closed around California. In 2008 the state spent $750 million on adult education through K-12 funding, but during the budget flexibility, the annual amount decreased to about $350 million. For instance, Oakland adult school programs were slashed, 90 percent, from $11.4 million to $1 million; and at least 60 percent of the budget of the San Mateo Adult School was cut. However the 2015-2016 California governor’s budget assigned $500 million for the Adult Education Block Grant, ensuring schools’ doors open.
In response to the cuts and their repercussions, San Mateo Adult School promoted the slogan “Adult Education Matters”. Today, this watchword is shared among all of California’s adult schools to raise awareness.
Adult schools, says Doyle, “are the door to the country for a lot of people, a kind of the first place where they can imagine what their life is going to be in the United States.”
The clock strikes 9:15 pm and today’s lesson ends. Some students help to organize the chairs, clean the board, and close the blinds while they talk a mixture of languages again. After a busy day of responsibilities, Gerber and the rest of the group are ready to go home with the personal satisfaction of having invested time in their educational growth.