Classrooms or computers? ACPS fields outcry over adult education changes

Classrooms or computers? ACPS fields outcry over adult education changes

A proposed overhaul of the school district’s high school equivalency and English language learner programs have left students and volunteers uneasy, despite repeated assurances from administration officials.

Early rumors of the changes sparked a backlash from residents worried the district planned cease adult education altogether, in turn prompting a quick response by Alexandria City Public Schools officials quelling the scuttlebutt.

But as details of the newly redesigned program trickle out, many remain concerned.

About 200 residents, many with pointed questions and remarks for Alexandria City Public Schools staff, gathered at William Ramsay Elementary School for a community meeting Thursday. They lobbied for the program’s future, even after Madye Henson, deputy superintendent, and Gregory Hutchings, middle schools director, pledged adult education would continue, albeit not in its current form.

The program, which includes GED preparatory courses, testing and English as-a second-language classes, likely will move from its daytime location on South Quaker Lane, though officials aren’t saying where it may end up. Evening classes will be held at T.C. Williams and Ramsay.

Other changes include transitioning students to online GED classes with a facilitator on hand to answer questions. Individuals unprepared to pursue their GED can take basic education classes.

Under Superintendent Morton Sherman’s “flexible and extended” learning initiative, designed to boost graduation rates, struggling 16- to 22-years-old students once referred to the adult education program will be encouraged to return to T.C. Williams or one of several undetermined satellite campuses to receive a standard or advanced diploma.

As they realign the program, officials want to downsize their current staffing levels, going to just three full-time employees. Currently, the district has six positions dedicated to the program. Instead, they’re adding funding for hourly, flexible employees.

All of the changes are designed to add seats, officials said.

“We’re one of the most diverse cities in this area,” Henson said. “We embrace the different cultures we have here. We wouldn’t close a center and not offer [residents] those services.”

Jo Ann Barnhart, spokeswoman for the recently formed Coalition to Save Our Schools, said ACPS is moving in the right direction but still falling short. Her group formed as rumors of the program’s impending closure spread through the city.

The community meetings haven’t alleviated Barnhart’s concern that the proposal will create cracks through which students could slip. Online courses are no substitution for face-to-face teaching, she said.

“That doesn’t work. The fact of the matter is [students] have many different levels of functioning ability coming into the GED classes,” Barnhart said. For those younger people looking at those satellite centers, if you have a group of people all at the same level, you might be able to do something like that. But when you have the array of student levels that really doesn’t work.”

Like Barnhart, John Chapman of Alexandria’s NAACP chapter, worries the changes will disproportionately affect minority students. He wants to see ACPS move back toward the traditional classroom.

“That GED program is the sticky point for us,” Chapman said. “If you have adult learners coming back to school then they’ve had trouble — obviously — in school. They need someone to work one-on-one with them.”

Getting students adjusted to an online curriculum works to their advantage, officials say, because Pearson and the American Council on Education will soon shift to computerized testing only. Randall Stamper, Virginia’s adult education and literacy director, said Richmond recommends the hybrid approach: part computer, part classroom.

Just sending an adult student to the Internet rarely works, he said, but online courses allow for a student with a busy schedule to keep on top of coursework without classroom time. And, like ACPS officials, Stamper believes it may prepare students for the online test.

“Certainly, with the conversion to computer-based testing, one of our concerns is many of our [students] may not have computer skills,” Stamper said. “We feel distance learning is a good way to familiarize students who might not otherwise have access to computers.”