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Adult education takes a big hit in river wards

Thanks to drastic cuts in this year’s state budget, education initiatives across Pennsylvania are seeing spending for programs and services drop more than $1 billion.

In Philadelphia, those cuts are showing up in the form of public school layoffs and, now, cuts to some of the only programs available to help adults get the skills they need to enter the work force.

In Fishtown, the cuts are having a deep impact on the more than 30-year-old Community Education and Employment Department at Lutheran Settlement House, 1340 Frankford Ave.

“We knew there was a good chance the budget could be cut,” recalled Todd Stregiel, adult education instructor at Lutheran Settlement.

However, he said, Lutheran Settlement was supposed to hear from the state Department of Education — the program received about $374,000 in funding last year through the department’s Adult Basic and Literacy Education bureau — last month about continued funding.

That didn’t happen.

This year, funds for all adult and family literacy programs across the state were cut by about 17.5 percent. All of these programs are funded from the same pot, now at about $12.2 million.

According to Tim Eller, a state Department of Education spokesman, no decision has yet been made on the future of the program and, in fact, no groups have yet been notified if they need to shut down or should prepare for next year.

“There’s been no official notification,” he said.

But Stregiel said the program can’t wait on word from Harrisburg any longer.

The program, which last year saw more than 250 students throughout its Adult Literacy, English as a Second Language and General Educational Development courses, should have started another round of classes on July 1.

At Lutheran Settlement alone, 20 students graduated to achieve a GED last year.

Since the last class graduated in May, Stregiel said, the program has been closed and its four staff members have been laid off.

“We’re all laid off. We have until the end of July and that’s it,” he said.

Lutheran Settlement will host community meetings on Wednesday, July 13, at noon and on Thursday, July 14, at 6 p.m. at 1340 Frankford Ave. to break the news to current students and volunteers and provide information about other options still available.

Stregiel said that as of now, the adult education services, which began at Lutheran Settlement House in 1979, have been cancelled.

More than worrying about his own future, Stregiel said, he’s concerned about the students. The program served residents throughout the city, and pulled heavily from the Spanish-speaking communities in Kensington and North Philadelphia and provided services to many in Fishtown and Port Richmond.

Some of the students, he said, have been working for years and now they will need to find similar services elsewhere — a tricky endeavor when adult education programs throughout the state are all seeing similar cuts.

“We are trying to help transfer students to other schools,” said Stregiel. “We are really concerned with ‘how do we get them across the goal line?’ now.”

But, what sort of services might remain for those that need them? According to state Rep. Mike O’Brien (D-175th dist.) cuts to education programs will have a seriously detrimental effect across the state.

“This is not just a Philadelphia issue,” he said. “If you look around, funding for all education [programs] has been cut by $1 billion.”

School districts, statewide, he said, have been cut by 7 to 15 percent overall.

The School District of Philadelphia saw 9.7 percent of all funding cut.

“Teachers are being laid off left and right all over the state,” complained the representative.

The $27.15 billion budget approved June 30 includes $850 million in cuts to “line items” such as education and work force programs, while including about $70 million in tax relief for the business community.

Worse still, O’Brien said, state-funded colleges like Temple University, which he said took a 19 percent cut in state funding, have raised tuition rates to make up for the loss in funding.

O’Brien worries this will make a college degree even more difficult for many to afford.

“And this is only the tip of the iceberg. This is the stuff you’re going to continue to see, but Marcellus Shale [the natural gas industry] pays no tax,” said O’Brien, bringing up a longstanding criticism against the Corbett administration, which has refused to tax the burgeoning industry to balance the budget.

With cuts across the state, the most affected could be those who need the programs most of all.

Angie Leach, 35, graduated from the Lutheran Settlement House’s GED program last year, and said that in the current economy, obtaining a job is incredibly difficult, especially without a high school diploma.

The Fishtown resident said that by completing the adult education program, she’s been able to obtain a better job.

“It’s already opened more doors,” she said.

A student that had spent her formative years in special education classes in public school, Leach said she found the classes at the Lutheran Settlement House to be more engaging and tailored to her needs.

“When I was in school, I didn’t learn anything because people didn’t care. Some teachers don’t want to teach you things they think you should know already,” she said.

“But he made it fun … He was the best teacher I ever had,” she said of Stregiel.

Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or hmitman@bsmphilly.com

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