Less than a month after earning his high school diploma, 22-year-old Kendell Biggers hasn’t wasted any time trying to advance his life. Sitting at a table inside the LEAP offices with job applications fanned out in front of him and a resume in hand, he’s looking both for work and for schools with good pharmacy technician programs.
“Right now I’m looking for any job,” Biggers said. “But I’m personally trying to get into pharmacy technician [programs.] That’s what I wanted to before I graduated. Now that I’ve graduated I can actually pursue that.”
In January, Biggers earned his GED and became a graduate of LEAP—Literacy for Every Adult Program—a free program subsidized by the Richmond Public Library and funded by the state of California. Since its inception in 1984, LEAP has provided tools and services for Richmond residents to improve their reading comprehension. Over time, the program has evolved to include services such as tutoring, preparation for the general education diploma, English as a second language courses, and math and computer literacy programs.
But LEAP’s services are imperiled by Governor Jerry Brown’s proposed budget, which would cut funding to statewide adult literacy programs by 20 percent.
“There’s really an assault on adult education,” said Sherry Drobner, the program manager for LEAP.
The proposed cuts pose a threat to LEAP’s staffing and funds for materials used to help its students, Drobner said.
“Most of our students are low-income,” Drobner said. “They really don’t have the funds to purchase some of the materials. Part of what we do is we help pay for some of the GED, as well.”
A 20 percent cut would translate to about $90,000, affecting LEAP’s basic budget plan. Drobner said that the bad economy makes the program even more imperative.
“When I have a room every Monday with 15 new students, that’s a result of the high unemployment, the fact that people need jobs that can’t find jobs, and the fact that they need to get their GED,” Drobner said.
As she shuffles through papers on her desk, Drobner waves hello to students walking by her office. Despite the looming threat of cuts, Drobner said she remains optimistic.
“I’m always optimistic,” Drobner said. “I’m always trying to figure out where to find other resources if there are cuts. I just don’t think it’s an option to cut those services.”
She said she encourages supporters of state-funded literacy programs to contact members of the state budget committee.
Although the proposed cuts would not eliminate LEAP entirely, the program could be forced to stop offering free dictionaries and GED studying materials for their students. It will also have to do away with evening ESL classes.
Hilaria Wright knows firsthand the significance of the ESL program.
“I was working at Sunshine Biscuits making cookies in Oakland,” she said. “When that company folded, I was forced to go back to school.”
Wright realized she wouldn’t be able to find work unless she worked on her English first. She decided to use LEAP’s services and was paired with a tutor. Through that partnership, Wright was able to improve her reading, writing and English pronunciation.
Now, Wright works as LEAP’s Family Literacy Specialist and has taught LEAP’s ESL classes for the past 16 years, helping those in same program she was once enrolled in.
Wright said she sees about 20 students each day in ESL training, and many of those students attend evening sessions. If the budget cut becomes reality, Wright said students would have to find alternatives.
“There are very few places where people can come at their convenient time,” she said. “There are people that work that still need to improve their reading and educational goals. If you get rid of ESL, it would hurt the whole community.”
Literacy and ESL classes are the most popular services LEAP provides, Drobner said, and the program provides extra support at a time when the state has reduced funding for adult education.
“Our adult education in our community is really suffering,” Drobner said. “They’ve had major cutbacks and had to reduce a lot of their programs, a lot of their adult basic education.”
In recent years, LEAP has been carrying some of the burden from other adult programs that have been slashed in Richmond. Drobner said she believes that many in the community turn to LEAP as a referral point.
“The bottom line for people is employment,” she said. “And the big gatekeeper here is the GED or the high school diploma. So many people are walking up to that gate and find they can’t open it, so they’re coming here.”
The state Legislature must approve the budget before it is finalized. In the meantime, Kendall Biggers continues to fill out applications with the hope of finding a school that fits his budget and career goals.
“Governor Brown’s not really opening any doors for people like myself, young people,” Biggers said. “It’s kind of like putting that brick wall right there. You can walk along it as far as you can, as far as you want but there’s no end to it. Programs like this help us get over that wall. They help me get over that wall. Now I can move forward and continue with my life and better myself.”