OAKLAND — Adult schools across California have dramatically reduced their offerings in response to deep state budget cuts and a new budget policy that lets school districts dip into their once-protected coffers. While the financial situations and priorities vary from district to district, one of the biggest casualties statewide is programming for seniors and disabled adults.
Art, music appreciation, exercise and communication classes, often provided at community health care or adult day care centers at little to no cost, will be all but wiped out in some districts, such as Oakland.
"It's such a sad situation," said Darlene Brown, activity coordinator for the Adult Day Health Center in East Oakland's Foothill Square shopping center. "It's like, how did we get to this point?"
It was Tuesday afternoon, and Brown and her students had just said goodbye to their teacher, Dapo Sowole, who recently learned he was out of a job. But Sowole had assured his students that he would be just fine. Instead, during their last session together, he asked how they would respond to a difficult situation — when a best friend is hurtful, when a grandchild comes home and says his teachers have been picking on him, or when you think you've been overcharged.
"It happened to me and my mom the other day," Gilbert Garcia offered from his wheelchair, as they discussed the overcharging scenario.
Sowole came closer. "How did you handle it?"
"Very calmly," Garcia said. "I had to talk to the supervisor."
Josephine Hammonds nodded approvingly from across the room. "That's what I said," she added.
Sowole teaches seven classes for the Oakland adult school and three for the Berkeley Adult School. All are targeted to seniors or the disabled, and all end this week, he said. Unless the centers can find the extra funding to rehire the teachers they have lost, the days might soon become longer for many seniors.
In addition to programs for older adults, California's adult education schools teach English to refugees and immigrants, give struggling teenagers a second chance to earn a diploma, show parents the ropes at their child's public school, and provide career technical training opportunities.
The first adult education class, taught in the basement of St. Mary's Cathedral to Italian and Irish immigrants, began in San Francisco in 1853. California now has 370 adult schools that — at least, up until now — serve more than 1.5 million people annually.
Until now, adult schools operated somewhat independently from their local school districts' central administrations. They received state funding that could only be used for educating adults. This year, the state Legislature eased those restrictions, allowing school districts to dip into the adult education pot and other formerly protected funds to cover expenses.
At the moment, the Oakland school district does not plan to take money from the adult education fund, district spokesman Troy Flint said. The West Contra Costa school district, however, is using $1 million of its adult school's $2.5 million budget next year to close a $25.7 million budget gap.
Knowing that more of their program's already diminished resources could be sucked into the school district's general fund, some adult school directors are protecting classes that match most closely with their school districts' missions. Adult schools in Oakland, Hayward, San Leandro and West Contra Costa, for example, are trying to preserve such programs as parenting education and high school diploma classes — those with clear benefits to their local school systems.
Mt. Diablo is one exception; Joanne Durkee, the school district's adult education director, says she aims to reduce the budget by other means, such as reducing some courses, raising fees or taking longer breaks in between sessions, rather than prioritizing some groups over others.
The Oakland adult school, one of the largest in the state, might reach some of its seniors with courses such as grandparenting, director Brigitte Marshall said. Still, of the 254 classes it eliminated as of today, 206 were designed for older adults.
"I think everyone's intentions are good, but there's a little bit of shortsightedness here," said Roberta Tracy, program director of a low-cost adult day care program at the North Oakland Senior Center, which is losing all of its teachers. "This is such a vital service for this population. It's keeping them out of nursing homes."
Staff writers Karen Holzmeister, Eric Kurhi, Kimberly S. Wetzel and Theresa Harrington contributed to this story. Reach Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her Oakland schools blog and post comments at www.ibabuzz.com/education.