By Chris Richard
California is home to a quarter of the nation's adults who speak little or no English. The state used to have a huge number of these people enrolled in language classes, but recession-battered school districts statewide have slashed or even eliminated such programs.
When the Fontana Adult School opens its enrollment office each day, there's always a long line, with not enough Spring semester classes to go around.
During a recent visit, some Egyptian Coptic nuns -- newly arrived in the country -- stepped to the counter. Sister Lisette Fakhoury knows the most English and did most of the talking in arranging English classes for the group. But when it came to Sister Lisette's own paperwork, the clerk hesitated.
"So, you are in high intermediate, but that class is full," she said, her voice apologetic. "So, um, we are able to put you in the multi-level class. Are you able to do those classes?"
Sister Lisette looked disappointed, but nodded.
"OK," she said.
Fontana principal Cindy Gleason says educational research shows that English as a second language classes are key to job advancement, better parenting and civic engagement. That's her own experience with adult students.
"They get excited. They come back," she said. "They report to the teachers 'I got a raise at work.' Others come back and report that they were able to have a very successful meeting with the teacher at the school."
Until recently, adult education was protected under California law, with state funds specifically dedicated to that purpose. But three years ago, legislators cut adult ed funding by about 20 percent. They also permitted school districts to use dollars earmarked for adult education to offset reductions in state allocations for other programs. At Fontana Adult School, the English language program has shrunk by 90 percent.
There wasn't room for Maria Flores in a second-tier English course.
"They put me in the basic course. And that's 'Hello, Good Morning, How are you?' I already know that," she said in Spanish. "I need to practice, but often, there's no room."
Principal Cindy Gleason says with funds so short, students often have to settle for English classes that don't match their abilities. She's not sure how long Fontana Adult School can maintain even this basic level of service.
"Sometimes it can be discouraging not to know whether additional cuts are still coming and how we'll be able to offer the services that our students and community need," she said.
School districts across the state face the same uncertainty. The California Council for Adult Education estimates that 70 percent of the state money that once supported adult programs, most of which were English classes, now funds instruction for children.
The Los Angeles Unified School District has cut its adult education program by 75 percent. Once, the district offered English classes at hundreds of neighborhood sites. This year, the district is eliminating those leases.
Adult education administrator Andres Ameigeiras hopes to fill the gap with regional centers which would offer automotive and other vocational classes by day and English by night. Next month, the school district will open a full class schedule at the newest of these in the city of Bell, just south of downtown Los Angeles. Auto mechanic classes already are underway.
"We're moving to move as many people for the dollar as we can," Ameigeiras said, above the whir of a car hoist as students practiced changing the oil. "The biggest bang for the buck as the old saying goes."
But adult English classes could be moving away from school districts altogether. In his budget proposal last week, Gov. Jerry Brown advocated setting aside some $300 million for adult programs while shifting them to community colleges.
But for some students, the process of learning a new language starts at what would ordinarily be the elementary school level.
At the nonprofit Centro Latino for Literacy near downtown Los Angeles, English instruction for some students starts with teaching them to read and write in Spanish. Centro president Mari Riddle says there are some 216,000 functionally illiterate Spanish-speaking immigrants in Los Angeles alone.
"We've had students that come in and say, 'I have walked past LA Trade Tech for years. I would never venture in to that campus. It's too overwhelming. It's too daunting.'"
Last summer, President Barack Obama offered some young immigrants the opportunity to remain in the United States without the threat of deportation if they could show they were in school or had graduated. Enrollment in Spanish-language adult education classes surged.
Immigration policy experts expect a similar spike in demand for adult English classes once Congress agrees on immigration reform legislation. But they don't expect corresponding federal funding to pay for the classes, and where the money will come from remains an open question.