WATSONVILLE — April Ortiz is a 25-year-old mother hoping to become a nurse to provide a better life for her children. Emilio Menze, 32, is working on his high school diploma to close a chapter of his life that has nagged him since dropping out of school as a high school senior.
Both are among the 4,500 students enrolled in Watsonville/Aptos/Santa Cruz Adult Education, a countywide program that offers free and low-cost classes to adults looking to finish up high school, learn English and gain job skills from cake decoration to computer programming.
Menze said he was driving home last year when a realization hit him — that he and his family had invested so much time and energy in school only to come up short right at the finish line.
“I knew right then that I had to rectify this for my peace of mind and to try to amend the past and just move forward,” Menze said. “This adult school has been so instrumental in helping me achieve this goal.”
Now, Menze said he has passed the GED and is four-credits shy of his high school diploma, which he expects to receive in the spring.
“Has it been easy? No,” he said. “Has it been fun? Kinda sorta. Do I have a new appreciation for school? Absolutely.”
Founded in 1928, the Santa Cruz County’s adult program celebrated its 90th anniversary Monday at its Watsonville headquarters.
“We’ve provided a safe space for them to fearlessly move forward and to experience success,” said Michelle Rodriguez, superintendent of Pajaro Valley Unified School district, which administers the program.Watsonville/Aptos/Santa Cruz Adult Education celebrates its 90th anniversary Monday. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
A lot has changed in that time, said Nancy Bilicich, director of the adult education program and a member of the Watsonville City Council.
It was the year of Mickey Mouse, Amelia Earhart and Ford cars when Watsonville’s “evening school” for adults opened its doors in 1928.
The scope and focus of adult education evolved throughout the decades, from supporting the wartime effort in the 1940s to a focus on adult literacy in the 1960s, according to Bilicich.
More recently, adult education in Santa Cruz County has focused on teaching English as a second language to adults from immigrant communities. As of the 2010 census, more than 35,000 county residents did not speak English proficiently.
With classes 32 sites across the county, the adult education program is continuing to expand its reach to more far-flung parts of the county. Last year, it debuted a class in the San Lorenzo Valley and is working on another expansion to the small North Coast town of Davenport.
“We know there’s a big need out there, so what we’re really trying to do is go out to where they are,” said Todd Livingstone, assistant program director.
The program is also embracing a nationwide push toward career-technical education to better prepare students for the labor force, Livingstone said.
But the past decade has also brought funding challenges in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession. There was talk, according to Bilicich, of shutting the program down.
“They wanted to close our school, they wanted to reduce funding, but guess what? We didn’t go away. We’re here, and we’re still growing,” Bilicich told attendees at Monday’s celebration.
Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Carmel, spoke about his own educational path, which took him from an athletics-focused high school student through Monterey Peninsula College and Santa Clara Law School before he became a prosecutor, and, in 2016, was elected to Congress.Longtime educator Rhea De Hart speaks to the gathering celebrating Santa Cruz County Adult Education’s 90th anniversary. (Dan Coyro — Santa Cruz Sentinel)
That path would not have been possible without a “chance to pivot” — a chance the adult education program provides for its students, Panetta said.
“For 90 years, this school has given the people of our community the chance to pivot, the chance for a better future,” he said. “And that has led to a better community, and ultimately a better Democracy. That is why I stand here and I congratulate you, but more importantly I thank you for allowing our future a chance to pivot toward the American dream.”
What: Watsonville/Aptos/Santa Cruz Adult Education provides free and low-cost classes for adults hoping to earn a high school diploma, pass the GED, learn English as a second language, or hone job skills.