Adult Learning Landscape

Genesis Center works with Providence Housing Authority to offer a range of options for adults who want to earn a high school credential and continue on into job training, college, or employment.

Adults in Providence can attend classes to learn English, earn a high school credential, gain skills to obtain licenses as CNA, food service workers or drivers. They can attend classes either in person or online, and often work more than one job while doing so.

Assumptions about adults in programs – those whose first language is English – can include negative stereotypes about being lazy, uninterested in school or unmotivated to learn. While the Bush era’s No Child Left Behind (also known as No Child Left Untested) caused some high school students to leave school out of frustration, COVID has also taken a toll on learning across all ages so that young people returning to school are often in classes with older adults – all of whom are seeking either specialized training and/or a high school credential of some sort.

Regardless of how adults have arrived in high school credential programs, disparaging them for not having completed high school “on time” is tantamount to blaming them for having experienced poverty, bad schools, systemic racism, abuse, undiagnosed learning differences or any other circumstance that got in the way of schooling.

Each adult has a history with prior learning experiences and employment or lack of it. Immigrant and refugee professionals are working in menial jobs while trying to gain language and licensing to do the work they were trained to do in their countries of origin. Women, previously barred from employment, now need to support their children. Husbands, single men who once had gender privilege, now find that racism trumps any power they may have had.

Here is one history, not at all atypical. “A” worked as a nurse and medical technician in Haiti. In the US she has worked in factories, relying on family and co-workers for transportation. Once she was stranded at midnight in Attleboro when someone failed to give her the needed ride home. Ultimately, she was forced to leave that job. She recently completed a training program through the Genesis Center, enabling her to become a licensed CNA in Rhode Island. While she still relies on co-workers for transportation, she is in the process of getting her driver’s license. She has passed the written test and is now working to pass the road test. She cooks daily for the family with whom she lives. Consider the multiple challenges she encounters just to get to work, let alone recover the credentials needed to do the jobs she can already do well. “A” is in her 50s. Americans, often in privilege and security, who have never experienced the need to emigrate, can only try to imagine the difficulty and even injustice in having to start over and over again. “A” is one of many adult learners in the state who wake up early every morning to go to work, study hard, and contribute to their households and communities.

Working-age adults in Rhode Island, according to the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), who do not have a high school credential number 68,000, and 31,250 adult Rhode islanders have limited English proficiency. These numbers alone should make clear to legislators and policy makers the need for access to education. The GED (General Equivalency Diploma), recently revised, has been made far more difficult to pass. Experienced math teachers themselves are challenged by the mathematical reasoning section (one of four test sections required to gain the credential). The others are reasoning through language arts, science and social studies (GED Test Subjects – See What’s on the Test). Rhode Island offers the GED in Spanish as well. The National External Diploma Program (National External Diploma Program (NEDP)), arguably less rigorous academically, measures life experience as part of its awarding of a high school credential.

Adults want to learn, work, thrive. Those facing mental and other health challenges may need extra time and support. During this fiscal year to date, 7,560 adults have enrolled in adult education classes in the state; of those, 5,124 have persisted in attending 12 or more hours, as reported through the federal National Reporting System. These numbers reflect attendance in programs tracked or funded by RIDE, and often receiving funding through other foundations, partnerships and, to a smaller extent, nominal registration/tuition fees and individual donations.

Whiteboard sentences from one of Janet Isserlis’ classes learning English.

The RI Workforce Alliance (RI Workforce Alliance | Economic Progress Institute ) advocates adult learning, for the benefit of workers, for the growth of the state’s economy and, by extension, for the betterment of communities. The Alliance, under the skillful leadership of Linda Katz, recently retired, has introduced legislation over the years, supporting funding for adult learning programs. Support for legislation is critical in enabling more adults to access learning opportunities through RIDE-funded programs and programs developed in partnership with RIDE and the Department of Labor and Training (RIDLT). Legislators at both state and federal levels listen to constituents – phone calls matter. Showing up to testify matters. Subscribe to Bill Tracker and be alerted to scheduled testimony, actions, and votes:

While the Alliance’s advocacy efforts for a better economy are important, individual lives are made better in ways that may be hard to quantify. Older immigrant and refugee adults, for example, caring for children and grandchildren, need and want to learn English to communicate more effectively with growing children. Older immigrants may experience changes in power dynamics as the younger generation gains access to English and a new culture as the elders struggle in that culture’s expectations. While elders may not be seen as ‘gaining’ economically for themselves, they may enable other household members to work outside the home; they may ensure the care of small children in the house as well as those returning from school every day. Other adults, refugees experiencing trauma and upheaval, find that participating in classes reduces isolation and increases their potential not only to heal and thrive, but also to contribute in positive ways to communities as volunteers. In doing so, by not utilizing public benefits, they may find their way towards greater mental and physical health.

Check here for a comprehensive listing of programs in Rhode Island funded by the RIDE, access to language, numeracy, literacy, and digital literacy learning, as well as in some cases apprenticeship-like programs in the areas of food and health services.–lkW4ppIU/ edit#gid=0).

Adult education in Rhode Island supports the common goals of students with widely different histories, all in their desire to support their families and their children’s learning, to navigate systems of care through government agencies, and to access the basics of food, clothing, and shelter.

Janet Isserlis has taught adult refugee and immigrant language and literacy learners since 1980, mostly in Rhode Island, but also in British Columbia. She has worked in community-based settings, in higher education and as a teacher educator, working to support adult learners and practitioners in facilitating learning and in supporting learners in accomplishing their self-named goals.