Twin Rivers approves adult charter school after years of cuts

Twin Rivers Unified trustees unanimously voted this month to approve Highlands Community Charter School in an attempt to resuscitate their district’s once-expansive adult education program.

It will be one of the state’s few charter schools dedicated to adult education, according to the California Charter School Association.

Like many California school districts, Twin Rivers dramatically reduced its adult programs when the state slashed education funding. State leaders allowed districts to use adult school money to preserve as many K-12 offerings as possible, and many districts chose that route.

Twin Rivers’ decision to revamp its adult education program through a charter school was largely driven by financial reasons. The district will not have to spend its own money on Highlands Community Charter School because it is eligible for state and federal dollars that include a three-year charter school grant totaling between $2.5 million and $3 million. The state will provide additional funding based on attendance.

The school plans to pay Twin Rivers to use the district’s facilities and for some administrative services.

“It’s a win-win,” said Ward Allen, lead petitioner for the new school and a longtime truck driving instructor at the district’s adult school. “We are helping former Twin Rivers Unified students that dropped out and are in the community without a high school diploma, and probably without a job. We will give them the diploma they missed and we also are going to give them solid job skills, and we are going to give them a job.”

Highlands Community Charter will help students older than 22 earn their high school diploma, learn a vocation or improve their English language skills. The school will open in July with one vocational education course – truck driving – but later expand to include classes for diesel mechanics, air conditioning and heater repair and auto body repair, among others, according to documents the charter program filed with the district.

“They will be able to come to us and we will get them a diploma and certification in a career technical subject – and a job,” Allen said. He added that the school is expected to open with 300 students from throughout the region and will expand quickly.

The school is desperately needed, say proponents, which include Twin Rivers Unified board member Linda Fowler. The district’s adult education program had more than 8,000 students enrolled in a variety of classes, including career technical education, in 2008, said Kirk Williams, who served as the adult school principal for five years. The district’s current program has about 750 students, who are primarily taking classes to earn a diploma or improve their English, according to information presented to the school board in February.

“It’s absolutely great for the district,” Fowler said of the charter.

She said the less Twin Rivers focuses on adult education, the more the district can improve its core offerings: “The K-12 program is what we should worry about.”

Twin Rivers officials haven’t yet discussed whether to eliminate or reduce enrollment in the district’s adult education program in light of the new charter school, Fowler said.

Teachers in the Twin Rivers adult education program decided they wanted to open an independent charter in 2012, as the district seemed poised to close the program, Allen said.

Allen said Highlands will eventually offer job placement services, as well as anger management and parenting classes, and drug and alcohol abuse classes. The charter is working in partnership with the Sacramento Urban League, which will handle enrollment and also will offer services to the students, Allen said. “We will make them a success and make them a much better parent and role model for their household,” he said of future students.

These services are particularly important in the high-poverty neighborhoods served by Twin Rivers Unified, Allen said. The school district has a 19.4 percent dropout rate.

Fowler said the services that Highlands will offer are particularly crucial as the state leans more on counties to oversee newly released inmates. Officials at the adult charter school are already working with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to identify prisoners ready for release who are in need of a diploma and job skills. Corrections and Rehabilitation will pay the charter school to serve these students, she said.

“They come out with $200 at the gate and they are on their own to find a job,” Fowler said. “If they don’t have a high school diploma and job skills, recidivism will be right at their front door. They have to be able to support themselves.”

The location of the adult charter school has not been determined, but it’s likely to be at the former site of the Twin Rivers adult education program at 1333 Grand Ave. Allen said 80 percent of all instruction will be at the school site, with some internships offsite.

Adult education is a shadow of its former self in most school districts. When state lawmakers in 2009 allowed districts to use adult education money on K-12 programs, only about half of the $600 million that had been budgeted for adults annually was spent on adult education, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Things got worse for adult education programs in 2012 when the state announced it intended to move adult education to community colleges. K-12 school districts started laying off adult education teachers and reducing their already limited options. By the time the plan changed to a consortium between community colleges and K-12 districts, many programs had been all but dismantled.

Local cuts have been dramatic. Sacramento City Unified spent $15.7 million in state funds to serve the 14,708 students enrolled in its adult education program in 2007. The school district now generates the $7.1 million it spends on adult education for its 1,366 students from student registration fees. The program focuses on career technical education and services to adults with disabilities and no longer offers a high school diploma program. The district has reduced its GED, English as a Second Language and Citizenship programs, among others.

Natomas Unified cut spending from $140,000 in 2007 to $64,000 in 2012. Its program has been reduced from 562 to 319. The district still offers classes for English learners and students who want to earn a GED or high school diploma equivalent.

The school will serve students from throughout the region, although adults living in the Twin Rivers district will have priority enrollment.

“You find all these doors closed and you don’t find any doors open,” Allen said of high school dropouts. “Some of us have to get off our ass and do something, otherwise nothing else will be done.”