From Class to Career

Approximately $2 billion a year is spent on adult education in the U.S. That number may sound like a lot, but not when compared with the $591 billion a year spent on K-12 education.

“Adult education and training programs traditionally received less than 10 percent of the amount of federal, state and local funding that goes to K -12 and less than 5 percent of what is spent to support higher education,” says Lennox McLendon, with the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education.

And the financial picture is poised to become worse.

There’s been a 17 percent drop in funding for adult literacy and education programs since 2002, says Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

“So we would be taking a system that’s already inadequate and making it a lot worse if these cuts were to go through.”

— Rep. Chris Van Hollen

These funds already serve only a fraction of adults who want services, Van Hollen says. “So we would be taking a system that’s already inadequate and making it a lot worse if these cuts were to go through.”

McLendon says getting funding for adults who dropped out of school is also harder because many believe they’ve made poor choices.

“One senator recently said these people have had their chance, and we don’t need to spend more money on them,” he says.

It’s true, McLendon says technically they did have their chance, but now they need a second chance.

I-BEST Model
Louisa Erickson is the I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training) program coordinator for Washington State. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

Some adult learners are getting that second chance at a Washington State program that’s getting national attention. The program is called Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training, commonly referred to as I-BEST.

Louisa Erickson, who helps run the program, says a few years ago people in the community college system realized they had a serious problem. They had too many people in the community who wanted jobs and too many jobs unfilled.

“Instead of hiding it and saying ‘wow, we’re not doing a good job,’ we really exposed it and said, ‘wow! We’re not doing a good job!’”

That’s how I-BEST was born. Students going through this program are the same as you’d find in any adult education class across the country. They’ve often dropped out of high school years ago and have low levels of reading and math. Many don’t speak English fluently. Through this program, they can take college level courses in any of the almost 200 classes offered, from medical billing to welding to building maintenance and earn certificates.

Team Teaching
Candi Benteu and Rachel Rogers team teach the Child Development program. Apart from course content students also learn about appropriate conversations and clothing in the workplace. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

The secret is team teaching, where two teachers are paired together. Candy Benteu and Rachel Rogers have “team taught” a child development class at Green River Community College for seven years. Benteu teaches the academic content while Rogers teaches basic skills — reading, math, and English.

Benteu says in the past, when students nodded she assumed they understood. But many of her students don’t. They just don’t want to seem stupid or if they’re from a different country, they don’t know it’s okay to ask a question.

The teachers also role-play workplace appropriate behavior, including: showing up on time, admitting mistakes, and knowing how to dress.

I-BEST courses are not dumbed down; students will take a nationally recognized childcare credentialing exam. At the same time, these teachers provide extra support, helping them get fingerprinted and receive first-aid certificates so they can work in childcare centers.

Students in a Child Development program at Green River Community College in Washington State. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)

In typical adult education programs across the country, students have to finish their basic courses, take a high school equivalency exam, followed by pre-college courses and then a college curriculum. If students need to learn English, it can take even longer. Many give up.

But I-BEST bypasses the GED test completely. Students in a program, who earn an associate’s degree, can receive a high school diploma retroactively. Benteu says that’s because the focus is on boosting student skills quickly so they can get jobs.

“That’s what helps our students become so vested in the program is they can see that light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.

Classroom to Career

Students at Shoreline Community College, just north of Seattle, finish the theory portion of a General Service Technician class, where they learned about the physics of manual transmissions. Then it’s a quick change into overalls and the hands-on portion begins. Mark Hankins, the instructor, walks along a row of cars and checks in on students working.


Mark Hankins teaches the Automotive General Service Technician program at Shoreline Community College at Shoreline Community College on July 22, 2013.(Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)


Students in this auto-technician I-BEST program will earn 15 dollars an hour when they graduate after a year from Shoreline Community College onJuly 22, 2013. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)


Nick Weible is learning about manual transmissions including how the engine operates when shifting gears. After this class, Weible will learn how to drive using standard transmission. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)


Students will learn how to change oil, rotate tires, and replace brake pads. Each student has a car to work on at the Shoreline Community College on July 22, 2013. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)


Mark Hankins helps CJ Forza figure out a problem. “I learn far better with hands-on work than book work and my grades will show that,” Forza said at Shoreline Community College on July 22, 2013. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)


CJ Forza inspects the brakes on a car at Shoreline Community College on July 22, 2013. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)


Betsy Binnian co-teaches with Mark Hankins. She teaches basic reading and math, English as a Second Language, and employable skills at Shoreline Community College on July 22, 201. (Photo by Kavitha Cardoza)


Betsy Binnian, a basic skills teacher and student CJ Forza talk about internships at Shoreline Community College on July 22, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Shoreline Community College)

One student, CJ Forza, says his brain just clicks with engines. He dropped out of school in the 12th grade; he’s now 31. Forza had a messy upbringing, bouncing around foster homes. But he says through it all, cars have been something that interested him.

Forza loves cars so much he works part time in a mechanic shop already. He’s now learning the “why,” not just the “how,” of repairs, which enables him to address specific issues when working on cars.

Like most adults in this class, Forza is juggling many responsibilities, without much money to hold his life together. But he sticks it out because he can see exactly what the connection is between this class and his career. At the end of one year, Forza will have a certificate in general auto mechanics and will see his pay jump from $10 dollars an hour to $15.

“I want to be the breadwinner of my family. I have a three year old daughter that I need to raise. I want a career not a job.”

— CJ Forza

“I want to be the breadwinner of my family,” he says. “I have a 3-year-old daughter that I need to raise. I want a career not a job.”

This class isn’t easy though. Mark Hankins says students have to learn the complex systems of today’s cars so at the end of the program they can handle tasks such doing an inspection and replacing the breaks and fluid.

“Those are the kind of jobs that there’s a big need for,” he says.

Jobs upon graduation

All I-BEST programs have to demonstrate that students can get jobs paying a living wage when they graduate. In most parts of Washington State, the living wage is $13 dollars an hour.

Another reason the I-BEST program is so successful is it’s closely tied to the business world. Each program has an advisory council from industry and a requirement for each student to complete an internship.

Betsy Binian is the basic skills teacher who works with Mark Hankins. She shows students how to take notes, apply for student loans and create resumes. They’re expected to call if they’re late for class, or if they need to leave early.

“Those are really basic things, but a lot of it doesn’t gel right away,” Binian says. “It’s amazing!”

Replicating Success

Independent research has shown that students in I-BEST programs are three times more likely than comprable students not in I-BEST programs to earn college credits. They also earn more money and work double the hours each week.

It’s been so successful that several funders are spending millions of dollars to scale up the program. So far more than 20 states are implementing some form of I-BEST, including Illinois, Kansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Wisconsin.

Mark Hankins says I-BEST really does make a difference.

“A lot of people will say, ‘Why can’t they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps?’ But not everybody has bootstraps or even boots.”

— Louisa Erickson

“I have a student that is now a General Manager of a dealership, and I’m sure he’s making two or three times more salary than I am.” laughs Hankins.

Louisa Erickson, who helps run the I-BEST program statewide, says when people talk about the program they often discuss the numbers, the model and the research, but at its heart, I-BEST is about giving people another chance.

“A lot of people will say, ‘Why can’t they just pull themselves up by their bootstraps?’ But not everybody has bootstraps or even boots,” she says. “And to assume that we do and to, basically, put a lifetime of blame on somebody who never had access and opportunity, it’s not fair. No, the world isn’t fair. But, if we can create opportunities, why shouldn’t we?”