Adult education on the edge

Karla Von Zup, right, works with a crew of disabled adults, from left, Robert, Larry and Shirley, cleaning a parking lot this past week in San Luis Obispo.
Karla Von Zup, right, works with a crew of disabled adults, from left, Robert, Larry and Shirley, cleaning a parking lot this past week in San Luis Obispo. jmellom@thetribunenews.com

Karla Von Zup moves at ease among the six adults wearing bright safety vests as they sweep a commercial parking lot in San Luis Obispo one recent crisp morning.

The job, although seemingly menial, is a crucial step in teaching the young adults with mental disabilities how to work and live independently.

It is something that Von Zup has dedicated her entire career to. She’s worked with adults with disabilities for more than 20 years through the San Luis

Coastal Unified School District, partnering with nonprofits to aid students who have aged out of the K-12 system.

But that is changing. In a few weeks Von Zup and five other teachers who do similar work will be out of a job, and hundreds of students will no longer have credentialed teachers as their guides.

The program, which was a moneymaker for the district for decades, has been eliminated because of budget pressures.

Von Zup’s future is as uncertain as the future of adult education in California.

In San Luis Obispo County, only two school districts — San Luis Coastal and Lucia Mar — now offer a skeletal selection of adult education classes. Two years ago, nearly all school districts offered a robust course load.

When the state’s funding mechanism for adult education changed in 2009, it smothered most of those programs almost instantly.

And they aren’t expected to come back.

‘It feels rotten’

The decision to end the school district’s program for adults with disabilities — displacing the six teachers — was strictly a financial move by San Luis Coastal administrators.

The program was once viable for the school district. Years ago, administrators learned they could collect state enrollment dollars — called average daily attendance — for each person enrolled, in addition to pocketing the state money allocated specifically for adult education.

At its peak, the program placed teachers not only at nonprofits assisting adults with disabilities, but also in nursing homes.

“It was a boon,” said Superintendent Eric Prater. “We made quite a bit of money during those years.”

But then the bottom dropped out.

The unraveling of the program — and the gradual decline of adult education throughout the state — began in 2009 when a legislative change allowed struggling school districts to use that money for other educational needs. The money was no longer earmarked specifically for adult education. The attendance money also ended.

San Luis Coastal administrators made the decision to reallocate the funds to other areas of need. They also decided that the $500,000 a year it would cost to keep the adults-with-disabilities program going wasn’t something they could afford.

“It was a wonderful program while economically feasible,” Prater said. “As soon as it became impossible to sustain, that is where it become political.”

Prater said it was in the district’s best interest to spend money on educating students through 12th grade and not expend funding for adults who don’t fall into its core mission.

The school district is only responsible for providing special education students with resources up to the age of 22.

“The truth is that no one feels good about this,” Prater said. “It feels rotten, but the money had to be redirected to support our kindergarten-to-12th-grade objectives.”

A 26-year veteran

Kerry Cirone, who works with senior citizens with disabilities, is another teacher losing her job. Each day she helps people with basic needs such as cooking and shopping. But more importantly, she teaches them to be advocates for themselves.

Cirone was hired into the program 26 years ago.

“What we do was a burgeoning thing then,” Cirone said. “People with disabilities were finally having their own voice, and independent living was becoming a big thing, too.”

Cirone said most of the people in the adults-with-disabilities program graduated from the school district.

“We are really just extending their education and getting a lot of those younger adults into work and social programs,” Cirone said. “The program has been very necessary and vital to the community for years, and I am very disappointed that the district no longer feels that way.”

The adults who are assisted by teachers such as Von Zup and Cirone will continue to receive help through nonprofits such as Pathpoint, Achievement House and Casa de Vida. But credentialed teachers will no longer be a part of the program.

“This is a loss of expertise and years of experience and knowledge,” said Debbie Hall, a program coordinator at Pathpoint, which provides services to people with developmental disabilities. “The adults-with-disabilities program was on the forefront of self-advocacy, which allows individuals with disabilities to speak out for themselves.”

The six teachers worked with about 300 people annually, Halfman said.

The district was forced to decide what to do with limited funding and had to choose between literacy programs for third-graders who are struggling to read and adults with disabilities who could benefit from improving their quality of life, Halfman said.

“But there is only one dollar; who gets that dollar?” Halfman asked.

Reduced program

San Luis Coastal will continue to offer limited adult education classes, including a GED program and a handful of other alternatives, such as fitness courses that people must now pay full price for.

The Lucia Mar school district, which has already eliminated all of its disability classes, continues to offer courses in English as a second language and a GED program.

The cutbacks mirror what has happened statewide, leaving adults without an educational safety net that has long been available.

“When people aren’t educated and they don’t have an avenue to become so, the choices they have in life are nominal at best,” said Charlissa Boaz-Skinner, principal of adult education at Lucia Mar Unified School District.

The change is also leaving longtime teachers, many who were nearing retirement, without a job. Cirone, 56, was planning to retire in four years.

To transfer into a comparable paying job with the school district, she would have had to take about two years of classes to gain the additional teaching credentials needed.

She and the other teachers losing their jobs were offered positions as teacher’s aides making about 60 percent less in salary each year than they currently earn.

“It is overwhelming to be at this point in life and think, ‘My God, what am I going to do?’ ” Cirone said.

Prater said the teachers were warned years ago when the funding shifted away from that program that this was likely to happen.

Four of the six teachers qualify for an early retirement incentive recently approved by the school board.

“When the Legislature signed away the restricted nature of the adult education revenue stream, it was signing the death of adult education in California,” Prater said. “At this point this all feels horrible and there is not one person in my organization that feels good about it. We have been doing our best to help with the transition, but it has not been easy.”