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A couple of years ago, my friend Tina Frantz began taking a San Diego Continuing Education course to help develop her handbag business. All I knew for sure was that Tina was suddenly unavailable by phone on Mondays and Wednesdays from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. and that every time I did speak to her, she was more enthusiastic about her transition from part-time interior designer to full-time handbag maker and business owner. During our brief conversations, after she’d updated me on her business plan and run a couple of web-design ideas by me, she’d offer pertinent information about, say, the humble beginnings of known brands such as Kate Spade and the Esprit Corporation.

I was happy she was happy, but I didn’t think much about where she was taking this class that had her so amped. I figured it was probably some community college or other, and I didn’t care all that much until she told me it was free.

Wait. What?

“Yeah, bitch,” she said. “It’s free.”

The forgotten majority.

Bright and early on a Friday morning, Anthony Beebe, the president of San Diego Continuing Education, bombards me with statistics.

“Generally [in the United States], about a third of people graduate from high school and go on to college, about a third graduate from high school and never set foot on [the campus of] an educational institution ever again,” he says. “And finally, about a third of the population of the United States drops out of high school.”

“Here in California, we have about 140,000 students every year who drop out of high school,” he says. “Qualcomm [stadium] holds about 60,000 people. Fill that up twice.”

“Cumulatively, that’s 5.3 million people in California that do not have a high school diploma.”

We’re sitting in Beebe’s office at the Educational Cultural Complex near the 805 and Imperial Avenue. It smells like coffee in here, and Beebe has one of those friendly, bearded faces with smiling eyes that stray only now and again to the clock to my left as he repeats the statistics we both know he’s said at least a thousand times.

“Remember I said a third, a third, and a third?” he asks. “Well, the third that graduate from high school that never come back to college, and the other third that drop out of high school, that’s two thirds, right?”

When I respond in the affirmative, he winds around to his point.

“Well, that two-thirds is the population we’re trying to serve here in Continuing Education,” he says. “In my view, that’s the forgotten majority, or the neglected majority, if you will, because a significant portion of all efforts in education is focused on that first third.”

To that end, San Diego Continuing Education offers high school completion programs, GED programs in English and Spanish, as well as approximately 30 career and technical programs.

“And it’s all free,” he says, confirming the most important question I have come here to ask. “Is that good, or what?”

If the world could be here, we would never have a war.

Students at a beginning English class at Continuing Education's Mid-City campus

My earliest understanding of San Diego Continuing Education came from living in City Heights and watching throngs of people in colorful garb spill out of the building at Fairmount and Wightman around lunchtime on weekdays.

“I think they go for English classes,” my husband told me.

And indeed they do. I later discovered that English accounts for 42 percent of the classes taught at San Diego Continuing Education. And of the seven Continuing Ed campuses, all of which offer ESL classes, Mid-City is known as the “ESL headquarters” or the Campus of Excellence for English as a Second Language.

Gretchen Bitterlin in front of new U.S. citizens who completed Citizenship classes at Continuing Education’s Mid-City campus.

Gretchen Bitterlin has been teaching English with Continuing Ed since the early 1970s, when the classes were taught using antiquated methods and held in high schools, churches, and even one at a garbage dump, mostly to Spanish-speaking Mexicans. On a morning in early January, she walks me through the Mid-City campus, and, determined to show me how much has changed during her time here, leads me into a beginning-English class in room 216.

The students wear sweatshirts, headscarves, baseball caps, and all manner of traditional ethnic or contemporary clothing. A young man in a blue-and-white striped sweater stands at the board filling in a blank on the blackboard filled with questions about housing. “The white house has rooms,” the board reads. And, “How many rooms does it have?”

Bitterlin approaches the teacher, Khamsay Sayavong, an older woman from Laos who attended Continuing Ed English classes in the early 1980s, speaks quietly for a moment, and then steps back. The teacher then informs her students that the guests in the doorway would like to know where each person is from.

“Please state your country,” she says. “I am from Laos.”

And then one by one, the students state their home countries. Some say the whole sentence, some only the name of the country. They hail from Cambodia, Somalia, Vietnam, Ethiopia, China, Mexico, Sudan, Burma, Afghanistan.

A 2013 enrollment report of all Continuing Ed students (not just ESL) reported students hailing from 135 countries and speaking 50 languages.

“If the world could be here,” Bitterlin says, “we would never have a war because of the intercultural sharing that’s going on.”

Video:

Mid-City English class

Beginning English speakers at the Mid-City campus of San Diego Continuing Education.

Beginning English speakers at the Mid-City campus of San Diego Continuing Education.

English classes range from basic survival English for those non-literate even in their own language to highly advanced classes for those with post-graduate degrees in their countries. When we leave the classroom, Bitterlin shows me to a computer lab on the third floor where more advanced students work independently on the English specific to vocations for which they are training: nursing assistant, food service, cosmetology, business information technology, construction, and so on. Across town, at the North City Campus of Excellence for Business Information Technology, the institution holds the Immigrant Professional Transfer Academy, which helps immigrant professional students with a bachelor’s degree or higher from another country to transition into institutions of higher education in the United States or to enter the workforce.

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