Teenagers on the verge of graduating from high school across B.C. are closing in on their big day. For one group that already graduated on Friday, the wait has been longer, the route often more arduous, and the achievement all the sweeter.
They are the province's adult education high school students, who range from Canadian-born to recent immigrants, teenagers to senior citizens. But government funding cutbacks for adult ed courses key to entering post-secondary institutions makes the future uncertain for similar success stories.
Stories like that of Antonio De La Torre, who was among the more than 400 adult ed graduates honoured at the Vancouver School Board's Friday ceremony. Fifteen years ago, De La Torre was a coffee plantation worker in his native Colombia. He fled to Madrid, Spain, to escape the political violence that rocked his home country and to find a more prosperous future. But during his six years in Spain, he had an accident that left both his legs broken in seven places, and a surgery to repair the damage left him with a bone infection.
He left Spain for the United States in hopes of better medical treatment and a job. But although his legs got better, he found it hard to learn English in the States. A year and a half later, in 2005, he moved to Vancouver, a city he chose because of the mild winters. He was 51.
Now on disability, De La Torre couldn't do physical labour anymore. But in order to get a good job in Vancouver, he needed to improve his English and his education. He had finished high school in Colombia, but in Spanish, which was "absolutely different."
"The main need for immigrants is the English. And after that, the life is different. The only way to. . . good English, for university or for college is coming to school," De La Torre told The Tyee over the phone from the Main Street education centre.
"The best teachers in English are in Canada, in Vancouver."
After five years of taking school part-time while working with SPUD, an organic food distribution company, and a final year of full-time studies, De La Torre is finally ready to graduate. He plans to attend BCIT in the fall for an international trade program that he hopes will lead to a job more suited to his physical capabilities.
"(I am) thankful because I find people in school and teachers to help me, give me the opportunity to improve my skills, my English," he says. "I realized many dreams in finishing the high school. And the most important reason is the best way for to get a good job, to have a better life here, is with education."
Not just for 'dropouts'
Not every adult education student has been an adult as long as De La Torre. Khine Htwe (pronounced "Kine Tsue") is turning 19 years old this year. Unlike her older classmate, Htwe finished her high school program in just one year of full-time studies, taking a year's worth of courses each semester.
A native of Burma, now called Myanmar, Htwe's parents transferred her to a private English school in Grade 8 because they believed "we need to learn English, we know that English is a global language." A year later she attended school in Singapore, where for three years she and her brother and sister attended high school because it was a higher degree of education. If they graduated in Singapore, they could go to any university in Asia.
But instead Htwe's older sister chose the University of British Columbia. After learning more about Vancouver's diverse population, as well as the education standards, the family decided to follow her here last year.
Htwe's older brother chose adult education because he could be finished in four months. But Htwe was torn. If she went to a regular high school she could make friends her own age. She feared adult education would be filled with older "dropouts" and students who didn't care about their education.
But regular high school would take three years to finish, and she wanted be in university before she turned 20. So she took a chance and enrolled in the adult education program. She was not disappointed.
"I'm graduating now and I can see that my decision was right, and now I can move onto my post-secondary education here," she told The Tyee. "Even though it was course-based curriculum, I made a lot of friends and I feel that they are very friendly to me. It's not just friends of my own age -- the age range is really a variety, and I learned a lot from their experiences."
One friend is a 60-year-old former engineer from China whose education isn't recognized in Canada. "He wasn't really thinking of graduating again, but he just wants to spend his time wisely so that he can practice his English and he can achieve his high school diploma. So I talk to him, ask him why he chose to become an engineer, and then I learn a lot from him," she says.
Htwe has already been accepted into the UBC's science program, with plans to attend medical school and specialize in surgery.
Fewer courses offered for free
Earlier this month the Ministry of Education announced it was cutting funding to several adult education courses because more students were enrolling -- and not finishing -- than they could afford to pay for. Part of the Education Guarantee program the government had launched in 2008, spending on adult ed courses has increased to $15 million from $1.4 million in five years.
Students who have not graduated from high school won't be expected to pay for courses like English 11, Communications 11 or 12, and Physics or Chemistry 12. But those who have will either have to take them online or pay $425 per course.
If De La Torre hadn't graduated from school this semester, he would have to pay for several courses.
"If I like to improve [by taking] some of the courses, I cannot take or I have to pay," he says, adding he can't afford $425 for a course on his disability income. "For example, if I like to take accounting to improve my skills, next term I have to pay."
For a student like De la Torre whose English is still shaky, taking accounting online would be difficult. Leslie Anne Mitchell, an outreach worker at the Main Street education centre, says free English courses offered by the provincial government or the non-profit Immigrant Services Society of BC only offer an elementary conversational English education. In order to make it to post-secondary, they need high school-level English or Communications courses.
"We're not offering [Communications] 11 and 12 [for free]. That doesn't involve Shakespeare and difficult poetry, it's more English for business," she says. "If they graduated with Communications 11 and 12 and they need an English 12, they have to do English 11. They have to pay for English 11, they can't go directly into English 12 because they have no background in English plays and poetry."
McJob or something better?
It's not just immigrants who might have to pay for courses or access them online. Mitchell says any students who left high school with a leaving certificate instead of a Dogwood diploma will also be expected to pay. A spokesperson from the Ministry of Education disputes this, however, telling The Tyee that anyone who has not graduated from high school, including those who received leaving certificates, will still have their education fully funded by government.*
The changes come into effect this July, and were made without warning to students who planned to take courses in the summer or fall semesters that they may now have to pay for. Enrolment has already begun for the summer semester, and although fewer students take classes over the summer, Mitchell says she's already seeing a decline in enrollment.
"The bottom line is do we want to just educate people to get a McJob coming from another country, or do we want them to have a better paying job and contribute more to taxes?" she asks.
Mitchell says the real test of government's funding decision will be the fall semester when enrollments are usually higher. But for now hundreds of adult education graduates have a better chance for the future they want, having received their high school head start for free.
*Story updated at 4 p.m. on Monday, May 28, 2012.
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