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Citizens Union

 Efigenia Torres got only as far as the fifth grade in her native Dominican Republic, but thanks to free adult education courses offered by the city, she expects to get her high school equivalency certificate soon. The Bronx mother is one of the legions of New Yorkers who have studied English, prepared for a job or learned how to read in church basements, community centers or unoccupied corners of schools.

But these days, Torres is one of the lucky ones, the winner of a grim new local lottery that's leaving other strivers out in the cold. Since September, when the city began closing adult education courses and trimming staff, a door has slammed on other New Yorkers seeking a route out of poverty.

The Office of Adult and Continuing Education began the school year with 575 classes, down from 700 the previous year. Retired teachers were not replaced, others had their hours cut, and counselors lost jobs. In late January, a fresh wave of pink slips brought the total number of positions eliminated to about 135.

The Department of Education described the cuts as a move toward greater efficiency. "We are consolidating because the program was not fully utilized. Teachers were teaching classes with few students," a spokeswoman said. She added that the state has not renewed funding for the program, which was running at a deficit.

Torres has helped organize a new activist group, Students of Adult Literacy United. Soon after forming, the student group quickly found 75 people in just two boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens, who had been shut out of classes and wanted to be put on a waiting list. If the city education department had done similar outreach over the years, it might have achieved the attendance levels needed to assure continued funding.

Adult education in New York has been streamlined according to someone's notion of a business model, and despite a supposed national commitment to job training, the buck is being passed from one level of government to the other.

The Best Kept Secret

That's why Torres joined several hundred students and educators at City Hall Park on a chilly afternoon last month to demand restoration of the classes. Many speakers agreed with the Department of Education that enrollment had been low. But they said the department itself deserved the blame for failing to publicize the program. "Adult education: the best kept secret in town," read one sign at the protest.

The woman carrying that sign was Lucy Zaslow, a retired adult education teacher. She said she could not recall any large-scale effort to recruit students – not a single poster, no radio or TV commercial. "Adults know about us only through word-of-mouth or local recruitment efforts," said Zaslow, "and those efforts have been thwarted now because the staff who conducted them have been laid off."

Others at the rally agreed that the program, four decades old, is now paying the price for years of mismanagement, during which little attention was paid to attendance or marketing, and classes were scheduled without regard to community needs.

Dan Ruderman, a teacher at an adult learning center in Brooklyn's Midwood section said it should have surprised no one that classes held at that location between 2 and 4 p.m. were under enrolled and had to be cancelled: most day students there are parents who need to fetch their children from school around that time.

The Ax

In September, as adult ed staffers were suddenly told to meet daily attendance averages or lose their jobs, teachers armed with rolls of tape and homemade flyers peppered schools, store windows and doctor's offices with announcements of courses. Some even recruited students off the streets, bypassing the testing and counseling procedures typically used to place learners in appropriate courses. With fewer counselors on staff, placement had become difficult anyway.

It was the stuff of which inspirational TV movies are made, except for the depressing ending.

Though some of these hastily improvised campaigns bore fruit - Ruderman said leafleting and schedule changes brought students to his Brooklyn center and spared classes from the ax - in most cases they came too late. Some teachers successfully filled their classes, only to be replaced by other instructors with more seniority. The education department has offered alternate assignments to teachers with certification to teach in the public schools, but some hold only adult education licenses or found the offered positions unacceptable.

The surviving teachers, who are members of the United Federation of Teachers, wonder if they'll eventually be replaced by substitutes or part-timers who wouldn't qualify for health benefits. Currently, the city sets its own licensing requirements for adult education teachers, exceeding the standards of the state, which does not issue certificates for the instruction of adults. But unlicensed subs might be cheaper.

Both the federal and state governments have moved recently to step up requirements for licensing teachers, arguing that highly qualified teachers deliver better services. Don't adults deserve the same?

An Opportunity Hard To Find

A number of Latinos and African-Americans at the rally described the cuts as yet another blow to their communities.

A middle-aged woman addressed the crowd in Spanish, begging the city not to eliminate English as a Second Language Classes. "We need English to help our children and grandchildren in school," she said.

In theory, the city agrees with her. The education department's web site describes adult education as an "integral part" of the education department's parent initiatives and its commitment to family literacy.

Yet it would take an Information Technology whiz, or a scavenger hunt, to find listings of adult education classes and locations on the Department of Education web site. Clicking the heading marked "Parents" on the home page won't take you there. Instead, the page for the Office of Adult and Continuing Education is linked to information about alternative high schools -- not a likely place for grownups to look.

Decisions like this at the top are costly to those on the bottom.

And as Torres said about her Latin community, "We didn't come here to clean houses and buildings. We want opportunity."

Marcia Biederman writes about city public schools for InsideSchools.org and contributes regularly to The New York Times.

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