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By Jay Thorwaldson

Will -- or should -- adult schools remain 'the quiet corner' of local education?

Uploaded: May 22, 2013

In about eight years, the Palo Alto Adult School will be observing its 100th anniversary -- a century of promoting the notion that learning can be for a lifetime.

Since its founding in 1921, the adult school actually can boast providing learning that has spanned several lifetimes, generations.

I once referred to the adult school as "the quiet corner" of education in the often fractious, high-pressure, debate-prone and sometimes hypercritical world of local education generally and especially in Palo Alto.

The fact was that this quiet corner had more students than all the rest of the Palo Alto schools combined. It currently has about 8,000 students taking a huge array of classes, some specially designed for persons with disability challenges or for seniors.

Granted, these are not full-time students, so there's an apples-and-oranges comparison. But they are real individuals, real people leading real lives.

And as state officials ponder the future of education in desperate-budget years (beginning to ease, one hopes), the adult schools seem to be easy targets, with their easygoing -sounding enrichment classes. Some school districts have drastically cut back or even killed their adult schools after being recently freed from the state's "categorical funding" system that funded them to the tune of about $700 million to $900 million annually.

But in Palo Alto, the adult school is flourishing, with a vigorous outreach effort, a bright and easy-to-navigate website, and a strong alliance with other adult schools and community colleges in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties. (For details, see column of last week: http://www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php?story_id=18922 .)

And there is a recognition that not all adult-school students are in their easygoing years. The largest single group of enrollees in Palo Alto Adult School are students taking "English as a Second Language" (or ESL) classes. That usually means that they are first- or sometimes even second-generation immigrants, most trying to adjust to a new life in a new nation.

But the classes don't just teach English. They are designed to prepare the students for academic advancement (i.e. college) or for career advancement or simply getting a job that can support a family.

ESL classes are free, while the more esoteric or enrichment classes are fee-supported. The website describes the range: "We provide classes for English learners, parents, job seekers, travelers, hobbyists, and others who want to expand their skills. Whether you want to learn to cook, try your hand at something new or enhance your skills, let us meet your lifelong learning needs."

Then there's the national "immigration debate."

I've often thought that those who rail about the invasion of immigrants while wrapping themselves in patriotic righteousness should attend a new-citizenship swearing-in ceremony. There they would witness truly heartfelt, tears-in-the-eyes patriotism as those of all ages and national origins officially adopt their new nation and home.

Many, perhaps most, of those at such ceremonies are graduates of ESL classes somewhere -- perhaps right in Palo Alto.

I do have a personal soft spot for the Palo Alto Adult School. In the late 1950s, as a freshman at Los Gatos High School I had a summer job in Los Altos as a caretaker for a large estate that formerly was the site of a summer camp where I taught horseback riding to urban kids.

I wanted to learn to type to use the new Olivetti portable I was given following the recent death of my father, but Los Gatos school officials felt freshmen weren't mature enough to learn typing.

So one day in early summer I called the Palo Alto Adult School.

"Is there an age limit for taking a class?" I asked.

"No, no matter how OLD you are you may enroll," the nice person replied.

"How about how young?" I pursued. No problem there, either. So all summer I took Thursday-night typing lab and practicing between mowing lawns and cleaning windows. By fall I was hitting 60-words a minute error free -- far faster than I would ever need for a future in journalism and writing.

Then I learned an invaluable lesson in educational rigidity. Armed with my typing-test scores I asked to be excused from the required sophomore typing class. No, I was told by the dean of boys at the time. It's a required class." So I spent a semester in total boredom in the beginning-typing class, and harboring to this day a conviction that such rigidity -- no, stupidity is a better term -- has no place in any school.

I would enjoy hearing other anecdotes of how adult school classes may have contributed to or altered someone's life -- post a comment.

*Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be e-mailed at [email protected] with a copy to [email protected] He writes regular print columns for the Weekly and blogs at www.PaloAltoOnline.com (below Town Square).*