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Hawaii News

Adult ed principals fear cuts’ impact

Community school principals are developing a plan to save adult education, whose funding will be eliminated in a year, and say higher fees and fewer courses will almost certainly be the result.

The principals say their biggest worry is a substantial drop in enrollment if their students, many of whom are low-income, aren’t able to pay fees high enough to cover costs. They are also concerned they’ll have to cut some outreach programs and perhaps even close some schools.

"We’re looking at it positively … (and trying) to come up with this action plan," said Helen Sanpei, principal of McKinley Community School. "The problem is a lot of people don’t really understand what we do. We service the correctional facilities. We do credit recovery (for high school students). High school students or adults come to us not being able to read and not having the basics for math."

Enrollment in free adult education courses, which include those for the GED diploma, English as a second language, reading and math literacy and substitute teacher certification, topped 12,000 statewide last year, with students paying only a $10 registration fee each semester.

Hundreds more fork over higher fees — from $15 to more than $100 — to attend self-sufficient recreational classes, such as those for yoga, ukulele and basic computing.

Principals, educators and Department of Education officials agree the state’s network of 11 adult community schools, the only licensed examiners of the GED diploma in Hawaii, are a vital public resource at a time when securing a job without a high school diploma is next to impossible.

Schools Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said the decision to cut $5 million in general funds to adult education was weighed against other DOE priorities, but added that she’s confident a leaner version of the program can be self-sufficient with help from fees, grants and federal dollars.

"We have a lot of homework to do" to make that a reality, she said.

Annually, hundreds of teens who dropped out or were kicked out of school attend adult education classes, along with new immigrants and longtime residents looking to improve their skills.

Last program year, which ended June 30, 749 students ages 16 to 18 got GED instruction at community schools, making up the second-largest age group in the classes. (The largest, 19- to 24-year-olds, comprised 34 percent of all GED enrollees.)

Meanwhile, of the 2,583 students seeking a competency-based diploma, which is similar to the GED, 40 percent were from 19 to 24 years old, and 34 percent were from 16 to 18, DOE statistics show.

Adults over 25 made up the bulk of students in English as a second language and adult basic education courses.

Kathy Yu, 53, a sales representative at Shirokiya, started taking ESL courses at McKinley Community School when she arrived in the islands from Japan seven years ago. The courses, she said, not only helped her improve her English, but taught her about American customs and protocols.

Yu, who plans to enroll at McKinley again in the fall, said she understands that in a difficult economy, cuts need to be made and everyone has to pitch in to keep programs alive.

She said she would be able to pay up to $50 for an ESL course. But she worries that others in her class couldn’t cover a fee that high. "Some of them are seniors. I don’t think they can afford it," she said. "They have fixed incomes."

Ray Sasaki, who teaches ESL at McKinley, said in a recent class he asked his 24 students how much they would be willing to pay for courses, and everyone agreed they could afford up to $100.

"That may be high for their income, but for an education, for getting a diploma, that is extremely reasonable," he said. "We are in a time of austerity."

Officials could not immediately provide statistics on how much community schools garner in fees annually.

The $5 million in general funds set to be eliminated from adult education will help the Department of Education make up a $32.8 million budget reduction over the next two fiscal years. The Board of Education voted last week to approve a DOE plan that would cut all general-fund money for adult education beginning July 1, 2012.

The one-year reprieve is designed to give community schools time to come up with a strategic plan for moving forward and determine which offerings are essential — and which aren’t.

In addition to cutting adult education, the DOE is slashing $8 million from the per-pupil funding elementary and secondary schools receive, and eliminating direct funding to popular programs such as "school within a school" learning centers focused around performing arts, robotics or health.

The $5 million cut to adult education puts in peril an additional $2.5 million in matching federal funds, though state officials say they’re researching whether that money can be matched with in-kind services, such as building maintenance or the use of DOE computers.

AMID worsening budget woes nationally, many states have targeted adult education for cuts, though it’s unclear whether any have eliminated funding altogether, said Gary Eyre, of the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education.

Eyre, who was a consultant to Hawaii’s adult education system in the 1980s, said states are also increasing fees for courses and decreasing the number of programs they offer.

State law requires the state Department of Education "establish and regulate a program of adult education" and provide school buildings and equipment for adult education purposes but does not spell out how robust the adult education program must be.

Shortly after the funding elimination was announced last week, adult-education leaders met to discuss their next steps.

It’s unclear when the principals will release their strategic plan for making do without general funds.

"I strongly believe that we provide a much-needed service for our undereducated community," said Windward Community School Principal Todd Watanabe after the principals’ meeting. "A lot of people come in with some heartwarming stories, how they’ve been able to help themselves for a better future. It’s very rewarding."

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