Anderson Valley Adult School
It's never too late to learn


Story by Maria Goodwin

If the goal of education is to teach self-sufficiency in all phases of life, Anderson Valley Adult School gets an A+ for its efforts. The school, which formed in 1992, has evolved beyond what anyone could have envisioned in the beginning and today serves a growing population, often with surprising results. Barbara Goodell, a former teacher at Anderson Valley Unified School District in Boonville, started adult school classes when Mendocino County Office of Education was successful in obtaining a three-year federal grant. “One of the first grants we received was the Family Literacy grant which was set up to teach immigrant parents English so that they could help their children with homework,” Goodell says. In 1995 when the grant ended, Anderson Valley Adult School received state sanction to form an adult school and AVAS grew with programs as diverse as its students.
Initially Goodell saw the formation of an adult school as a response to the pressing need in the Valley for teaching English to the influx of migrant workers, all eager to learn and help their children succeed in school.

The Adult School’s small staff had no idea how curriculum would evolve, but soon realized that a curriculum based on projects that reflect a variety of real life skills was vital. The school’s philosophy about the importance of education at any time in one’s life and that “…it’s never too late to learn,” drives teacher dedication and prompts hesitant adult learners to work towards their chosen goals.

“Self-sufficiency starts with what the individual learns—that strengthens that person as a parent, community member and worker,” Goodell continues. “It doesn’t do any good just to learn some English in the classroom and then go outside and not use it in everyday life. That’s the whole point––to absorb the language and use it daily.

To accommodate this, teachers and students worked together to assess exactly what the students actually wanted to learn. The practical applications of reading, writing, and speaking English were translated to learning skills needed for getting a job, going to the doctor, applying for a driver’s license, etc. “This project-based learning curriculum is episodic in design,” Goodell explains, “and always includes a computer component with actual useable dialogs for reading (road signs, for example), writing, (banking, filling out forms), math, (balancing a checkbook)—these tasks mimic real life situations. To fortify these classroom exercises, we took students out on field trips to practice. Practicing with native English-speakers helped them build on what they learned in the classroom. We used flashcards, games, diagrams––some students created their own set of flashcards and paired with less advanced students for peer tutoring.”

Adult School classes are not just for people seeking to learn English. Spanish classes are taught, attracting English-speakers who want to travel in Spanish-speaking countries. French-speaking interns from nearby wineries wanting to be able to converse with winery workers attend Spanish classes also. Classes throughout the year are taught days, evenings, and even during summer when there is sufficient funding. The current schedule offers GED [General Education Degree], Citizenship, parenting, English-as-a-Second-Language, Spanish, job skills, and music––a Big Band class as well as chorus.

The difficulty of working full-time, attending classes, studying and caring for a family in addition to learning a new language and culture can be daunting, but the success story of one Mexican immigrant shows these difficulties can be overcome.

Esther Soto’s story mirrors the experience of many immigrants who came to Anderson Valley. Immigrants arrived realizing the necessity of learning English in order to obtain employment, better jobs and possibly higher education. In 1980 Esther’s mom, dad and elder brother left their hometown in Mexico and secured work in Anderson Valley. Back in Mexico, Esther, with the help of relatives, was temporarily left in charge of her younger siblings until her parents were settled and could send for the rest of the family. With housing and jobs secured in the Valley, Esther and her younger brothers and sisters followed. Esther was thirteen.

“When I started high school here, there were only about ten Mexican immigrants in Anderson Valley schools,” Esther recounts. “Of course, none of us spoke English and the teachers didn’t know what to do with us. It wasn’t their fault––they just weren’t prepared for having non-English-speaking kids in the school. At first they put us in vocational classes and food service. Now it’s different––there is curriculum in place to teach non-English-speakers.” Some of the students were friendly and welcoming; others were overtly hostile Esther recalls. “It was sink or swim,” she continues. “There was no question of giving up. My parents always kept a positive attitude no matter what happened. They came to this country to make a better life; they were never negative or retaliating and they encouraged us to be the same way.” Acceptance or rejection of the immigrants was the similar throughout the community––some people went out of their way to be mean, she says, but others went out of their way to help newcomers assimilate into the community. Esther says she has never forgotten the help she received and she resolved to give back to the community in whatever way she could, whenever she could.

Esther continues, “I know bilingual education is a subject of great controversy, but I really believe having a strong background in our native language helped us grasp English more quickly. All of us (in the family) always worked, we always had jobs, but we found time to study too. I studied English on my own. It was always my hope to continue my education and before long I was taking classes at the Adult School and got my GED.”

An instructional assistant position at the elementary school became available and Esther was encouraged to apply. Applicants must pass a test in basic math, reading and writing to qualify. “I passed the proficiency test the first time,” she says proudly. Meanwhile, Esther married and started a family, working full-time and continuing classes at the Adult School. Wanting to contribute to the community, Esther volunteered to assist in teaching Spanish in the Adult School.

After several years of Adult School classes Esther was proficient enough to go “over the hill” to Mendocino College. “I worked very hard, but didn’t push myself, because my family comes first. We don’t rely on society or the schools to assume the role of parents,” she says. “We believe firmly in parents being the primary influences in a child’s life.” Esther continued taking college classes, two per semester, plus summer school, while working. She moved from classroom aide to a bilingual specialist position assisting the Speech and Language director. Esther flashes a bright smile emphasizing, “I couldn’t have done it without my husband’s support throughout all of this.”

It took five years for Esther to complete her A.A. [Associate in Arts degree] (with honors) while attending Mendocino College part-time, working full-time and raising her family. Esther then transferred to Sonoma State where she earned her B.A. [Bachelor of Arts degree] graduating (again with honors) in spring of this year. “When I graduated, I told my husband, this degree is half yours.” Esther says she could not have done it all––working, studying and raising her family without her hard-working husband’s constant support of her efforts. She relates proudly that now all three of her children are in college and she herself is planning to enroll in Sonoma State’s teacher credentialing program. Four members of the family in college creates a strain on family finances, but no doubt Esther’s quiet resolve and persistent determination will insure her success. “I will never forget those kind people who helped me in the beginning,” she says again as she continues to make good on her desire to give back to the community––presently she volunteers teaching a Spanish elective to an early morning (before school) class at the elementary school.

It’s not just immigrants who want to learn English or complete GED requirements. One of the many others who has benefited from AVAS classes is Carla Michaels.* Originally from southern California, Carla moved to the Anderson Valley area from Santa Rosa when her husband secured a managerial job at a local winery. Carla’s cheerful demeanor belies her stormy past. “I had a really, really bad home life,” she says candidly, “and I dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade. I left home; I got into a bad scene. I was an alcoholic, I was into drugs. I lived on the streets for a while.” She laughs as she lights a cigarette saying, “It’s my only vice now. I did all the usual things—had kids, got married and divorced.” Her pride is evident as she enthusiastically describes her success at leaving that old life behind. “I cleaned up because I felt I could do better. I didn’t want my kids to have the life I had led.” But in spite of being drug-free for many years, Carla says she was somewhat intimidated about never completing school. “I always intended to go back, but felt I had quit so long ago––then I saw a flyer in town advertising the Adult School classes. After talking with Barbara Goodell, AVAS former director and Diane Paget, program coordinator, Carla was inspired enough to begin working towards her GED. She passed easily and plunged into business and math classes plus some basic English classes required for college entrance. “I couldn’t have done it without Barbara and Diane,” says Carla. “They constantly cheered me on––they made it easy for me. The more they encouraged me, the more I really believed I could do it!” With the basics fulfilled, Carla is planning to enroll in a degree program at Mendocino College. “Making intelligent choices for my life is my responsibility. What I did at the Adult School gave me the confidence I needed to try for college”

It’s arresting to think of a cookbook evolving from an English literacy class, but that’s what happened in Kira Brennan’s morning class. The students, all Mexican women, brought mid-morning snacks of tortillas and salsa and Brennan was intrigued with the variety of salsa tastes, each reflecting a family tradition and various regions of Mexico. She soon collected recipes scribbled on salsa-splattered napkins and half-moons of torn paper plates. The communal effort of staff, volunteers, and artists led to a locally produced gem: Secrets of Salsa, A Bilingual Cookbook by the Mexican Women of Anderson Valley. To date, Secrets has sold over 25,000 copies. The book’s runaway success led to another homegrown Valley production: Sharing Secrets of Salsa: Mixing English with Community Spirit, a DVD which documents the origins of the cookbook and how compiling the book enabled students to gain confidence and knowledge extending far beyond the classroom.

In another English literacy class, teachers sought ways to help students focus. One teacher hit on the idea of giving the women something to do with their hands––various ideas were tried and discarded. Donated sewing machines and material prompted the idea of quilt making. A few of the women could sew, but none of them had any familiarity with making art or using computers. Open to exploration, the teachers encouraged the students and within weeks women who had never used a computer or sewing machine were learning to use both. Their intuitive design sense emerged as they created story quilts. Their willingness to share their stories resulted in touching and often whimsical scenes of family life, border crossings into the United States, and reverence for the natural and spiritual worlds. Universal themes of homeland, hardship and struggle were reflected with simplicity and candor. Teachers and students alike were astonished and delighted. The quilts were exhibited with accompanying stories written by the women. A cooperative was formed––Hilos de la Vida (Threads of Life), and proceeds from quilt sales go directly to the makers except for 10 percent to help support the ongoing program. The quilters are exhibiting their creations at the Mendocino Hotel, Main Street in Mendocino, May 5 to 12.

Despite the constant struggle for funding, Anderson Valley Adult School continues to flourish adhering to its philosophy of never to late to learn. Education means learning, trying new things, growing, overcoming and achieving and becoming self-sufficient (and surprised!) in the process.

Contact information:
Diane Paget, AVAS Coordinator, 707-895-2953

Secrets of Salsa – www.secretsofsalsa.com

Threads of Life (Hilos de la Vida) blog: loshilosdelavidablogspot.com


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