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Adult education programs provide an invaluable service to adults and the communities they live in by helping them graduate from high school, speak, read and write in English, pass the GED (General Educational Development) test, learn job skills, and become U.S. citizens.

AE benefits more than just the students. Participants in adult education programs are also more likely to have a positive impact on the education of their children, because well-educated adults lead to well-educated children.

But over the years, AE programs have endured massive cutbacks, funding uncertainty, and poor treatment of teachers. There can be confusion about them, because they’re neither K-12 nor higher education. (AE classes are located in both K-12 districts and community college campuses.) Instead, adult education falls into a unique category of pre-collegiate skills for adults. And because AE serves a population that is often overlooked, it can be referred to as the “stepchild” of the California school system.

Jean MacDonald and Elza Hess, teachers at the Pittsburg Adult Education Center, would like AE to receive the recognition and respect it deserves, so they have stepped up to advocate for AE teachers and programs.

A tale of two advocates

MacDonald teaches English as a Second Language (ESL), and Hess teaches ESL and second language literacy. Both hold master’s degrees.

They have not been Pittsburg Education Association (PEA) members for years. Staff on site told them that because of their part-time status, they were ineligible for membership.

“We were led to believe that our union would not take us,” says MacDonald, who found out otherwise when she visited the union office, was handed an application, and signed up on the spot. MacDonald signed up Hess, who became a site rep nearly two years ago. Hess then signed up other colleagues. MacDonald was elected as a co-site rep this school year.Before becoming reps, they had never met most of their fellow teachers, even though they all have taught in the same district for years. Almost 90 percent of the teachers are part-time.

MacDonald and Hess realized they share the same goals of improving working conditions for teachers and students. The two worked diligently, and soon 23 members were signed up at their school site. Monthly meetings with the new reps became a regular occurrence, where teachers openly communicated about job issues, perhaps for the first time in years. With growing membership came the realization that if AE teachers united, they could have a stronger voice and create positive changes.

Change started on a small scale. The school site’s water fountain had not worked in nearly two decades. The duo and others demanded a working water fountain, and water is now flowing.

“Adult education teachers have wanted full-time positions as long as I’ve been working here. We are working toward bettering this situation.” —Jean MacDonald, Pittsburg Education Association

Next they voiced the concerns of members about the tripping hazard of the unevenly landscaped school courtyard, which caused several teachers to stumble and one to twist an ankle. After a grievance was filed, the problem was fixed. Then they helped to get video cameras and lighting installed in the school parking lot to improve safety.

Buoyed by these successes, Hess and MacDonald turned their sights on bigger issues impacting AE.

Demanding fair treatment

Like many educators who teach AE throughout the state, MacDonald and Hess have not been offered full-time work by the Pittsburgh Unified School District. By hiring part-timers, districts can avoid paying benefits and health care. The reps have been vocal about the unfairness of this situation.

MacDonald and Hess are both teachers at the

MacDonald and Hess are both teachers at the Pittsburg Adult Education Center.


“Adult education teachers have wanted full-time positions as long as I’ve been working here since 2001,” says MacDonald. “We are working toward bettering this situation.”

They believe the key to solving the AE teaching shortage in their district and others is to offer full-time jobs with benefits. They say the shortage has caused students to be turned away, classes to be canceled, and remaining classes to be severely overcrowded.

Since the AE teachers became involved in PEA, the union is more aware of their needs and has requested during bargaining sessions that the district fill more full-time positions to solve the teaching shortage at the Pittsburg AE site. The bargaining team is also seeking to get what it considers the site’s fair share of LCAP funding from the district and the Contra Costa County Adult Education Consortium.

Unlike most teachers, AE instructors in Pittsburg are not given any paid prep time. They work on their own time, unpaid, to prepare lessons, counsel students and evaluate student work. The union is pushing for them to be paid the full rate for mandatory professional development hours instead of the lower rate for substitute teachers.

Seeking respect for important work

With AE instructors facing such challenging work conditions, misunderstandings about their role and lack of clear career opportunities, Hess and MacDonald are often asked why they stay in their jobs instead of seeking K-12 positions where they are likely to be treated better.

“We stay because we do important work,” says MacDonald.

One of her students, for example, came from Mexico, and because he was dyslexic, he never learned to read. Now he is literate in English and holds two jobs.

“He’s a butcher, and after he filled out the application and passed the test, he came to thank me, and we had a good cry together,” she recalls. “It was a success story not just for him, but for his family.” Hess has a student from Nigeria who had never attended any school growing up at all. Now she can read and write in English.

“I’m not illiterate any more, Mrs. Hess, am I?” she asked recently.

“We love our students and love our job,” says Hess. “This is why we’ve stayed.”

Adult Education

Numbers of adult education students served in K-12 programs and community colleges, 2016-17.

K-12 Adult Education programs Adult Basic Education: 45,905 (8.1%) Adult Secondary Education: 127,973 (22.8%) ESL: 203,709 (36.3%) Career Technical Education: 122,195 (21.8%) Adults With Disabilities: 4,250 (0.8%) Subtotal: 560,998

Community College Adult Education Adult Basic Education: 62,480 (22.5%) Adult Secondary Education: 18,856 (6.8%) ESL: 92,242 (33.2%) Career Technical Education: 71,643 (25.8%) Adults With Disabilities: 2,896 (1.0%) Subtotal: 277,315 Total: 838,313

In contrast, in 2008-09, the total number of adult students served in K-12 programs and community colleges combined was 2,270,649.

Source: “Adult Education Block Grant Program Progress Report, October 2017,” CDE and CCCCO.

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