The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 5, 2012

Adult education grows as economy struggles

By Amanda Dyslin
The Free Press

MANKATO — In the past two years, enrollment in Mankato Adult Basic Education has gone up 20 percent.

In four years — since the 2008-09 school year when enrollment was 765 students — participation went up 30 percent, to 988 students in 2011-12. And in some ways, said Karen Wolters, that’s not necessarily positive.

“It’s very much driven by the needs of the (local) economy,” said Wolters, transitions coordinator for Adult Basic Education (ABE), which is housed under Community Education and Recreation. “We have people coming in every day at every level needing different (services). ... We have experienced about a 20 percent growth over the last two years, mainly because of the downturn in the economy.”

Adult Basic Education includes such programs as English as a Second Language (ESL), General Educational Development (GED), College Prep and FastTRAC, which addresses the skills gap in the in-demand areas of the workforce by training educationally under-prepared adults in career-specific fields. In Mankato the FastTRAC program focuses on healthcare and manufacturing, Wolters said.

Wolters updated the Mankato School Board Monday night on ABE’s progress and its booming enrollment, as well as the challenges those figures present. She said the biggest increase in enrollment is coming from people who need more education to go back to work, whether that be due to layoffs or other reasons.

“Some don’t even have a high school diploma,” she said.

In dealing with additional enrollment, space is the program’s biggest issue, Wolters said. The hub for Mankato ABE — which also serves the school districts of Maple River, Lake Crystal, New Ulm and Sleepy Eye, as well as the Brown and Blue Earth county jails — is the Lincoln Community Center.

But partnerships with various community organizations, such as Mankato WorkForce and South Central College, are providing additional space and opportunities, Wolters said. The addition of space allows for the addition of programming, Wolters said, which results in more “contact hours” — the number of hours ABE staff has contact with students, which is tied to program funding, she said.

ABE is also renting space at the New Ulm WorkForce Center to serve as the hub for the New Ulm area.

Wolters said partnerships with SCC, Minnesota Valley Action Council, WorkForce and Blue Earth County Employment Services, among other organizations and agencies, benefits the program in many more ways than just added classroom space.

The main goal of ABE is getting people to the point of “self-sustainable, living-wage jobs,” she said, but various barriers stand in the way for the typical ABE client. Barriers could be a lack of financial resources to attend college, limited access to childcare, or a lack of transportation. ABE’s partnership with WorkForce, for example, can help students obtain gas vouchers or other financial support, she said.

“When we work with other agencies we can each determine what we can each provide,” she said. “We’re at a point where we’re making things happen for our clients.”

Wolters said while enrollment figures are likely indicative of negative trends — people being laid off and needing to take an ABE College Prep class, for example, before they’re ready to go back to school — the “educational functioning level” is proof of the Mankato program’s success.

For 2011-12, 45 percent of ABE participants went up a level, which loosely could be compared to K-12 students who move up a grade level each year due to a mastery of skills.

“I’ve been in ABE for 18 years, and we have exceeded our statewide target every year,” she said.

ABE serves people ages 16 and older, but the program prefers adults ages 18 and older, Wolters said. However, permission can be obtained from students’ high schools who dropout at age 16 or 17.

Adults can come to the Lincoln Community Center on any day to begin the enrollment process, she said.