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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

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 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.”


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.

Beebe has sold me on the wonders and necessity of the institution of San Diego Continuing Education, and all this is well and good. But what blows my mind is the abundance of opportunities for everyone to learn a new skill, try a new hobby, or flat out change your life. You don’t have to be in the second third or the third third. You can be, but you don’t have to be. And either way, it’s free.

Hundred-year history.

“It’s taxpayer money. [Adult education] is part of the public education system, and people for the most part believe that’s K through 12. But it’s K through 14,” Ranessa Ashton, the public information officer at San Diego Community College District tells me. “What happened in the State of California is that the communities were allowed to vote: do you want adult education to go with K through 12 or community college? In some communities, if you need to get a GED when you’re 30, you’re going to go to the local high school for it. In San Diego, the voters said, let’s put adult education with community college. That was in the ’70s.”

Ashton, who is currently spearheading plans for the 100th anniversary celebration of San Diego Continuing Education, finds herself immersed in the history of adult education in San Diego.

“Most of it, I’m just looking through old archives and books and newspaper clippings. Like, look at the people,” she says, handing me an old pamphlet she retrieves from a two-foot-high stack of files. The front shows black-and-white photos of a woman on a stitching machine and people at desks taking notes from books. The year reads “1943/1944.” “I found some good clippings about the defense, and when [the country] went to war, there were a lot of manufacturing jobs, so the adult-education program ramped up to meet the needs of the community.”

San Diego Continuing Education began when San Diego High School began offering two years of college course work in 1914. According to Development in Adult Education, in 1917, legislation authorized day and evening classes by high schools and elementary schools for persons not attending high schools. In 1920, the school population in San Diego was 14,275 standard students and 5320 evening high-school and part-time students (mostly adults).

Today, the San Diego Continuing Education has a budget of $29 million and currently serves over 8000 full-time students per year. Those numbers are down from $36 million and 10,000, respectively, in 2008. Prop S (2002) and Prop N (2006) approved $1.55 billion in funding to upgrade, replace, repair, and expand facilities in the San Diego Community College District. Continuing Education received a little over $200 million.

The building in which we now sit at Continuing Education “headquarters” was opened in 1976 on land formerly occupied by Navy housing. The original plan for the building included three wings; the second was built in 1981, and the third wing was completed in September 2013 as a result of Props S and N, finally replacing temporary classrooms that have sat in the parking lot for 30 years. One of the final projects for these funds is under construction now in Barrio Logan, which will be the seventh Continuing Education campus, to be called the Center for Excellence in Allied Health. Currently, the Cesar Chavez campus is housed in a small building across from Chicano Park, which the district leases from the City of San Diego. The new 67,924-square-foot, 22-classroom facility is scheduled to open in 2015. When it opens, the health-career training programs (for certified nursing assistant, home-health aide, patient-care assistant), which are in high demand these days, will expand from one classroom to seven.

The first third can take advantage, too.

Molly Whittakar at her upholstery workshop, on a customer's couch that she will rebuild.

Molly Whittakar at her upholstery workshop, on a customer's couch that she will rebuild.

Molly Whittaker is in Beebe’s first third. She graduated from high school and went on to college. But all she has to show for her bachelor’s degree in vocal performance is the $50,000 debt she accrued to obtain it. And now, lo and behold, after a year of free classes at San Diego Continuing Education, she runs an upholstery business out of her 20-foot-by-20-foot garage in the College Area. While she doesn’t yet have a website, business cards, or a catchy name, the opera-singer-turned-upholsterer already has a small waiting list for her services.

For years, Whittaker struggled to make a living as a singer. She sang for the San Diego Opera, she performed at churches and temples, did Christmas caroling and jazz concerts.

“I have a music degree,” she says, “and it’s useless [except] to teach music and to make $100 at a gig that has three rehearsals and is two days of performance. It was like that, over and over.”

We’re standing in her garage, which she has outfitted with two souped-up saw horses, a five-foot-by-nine-foot cutting table, a $1000-on-sale industrial sewing machine, and a $400 air compressor for her staple gun. In the corner, a ratty, faded red chaise sofa and chair set await her attentions, as does a pair of seats from a VW bus that have been stripped down to the metal.

“Singing was fun,” the bubbly 38-year-old continues. “It was great. I sang with everybody in town. But it wasn’t sustainable. I was, like, ‘I’m pushing 40, and I can’t deal with this lifestyle anymore.’”

The week before Christmas 2009 she saw an ad for a job as an assistant stage carpenter at Cygnet Theater. The only requirement was that she have a “basic knowledge of tools.” She applied and got the job. Over the next three years, she continued to work for Cygnet, during which time she also learned welding, sewing, woodworking, set dressing, and all manner of back-of-the-house skills to complement her front-of-the-house experiences as a singer.

Even so, the work did not provide the financial stability she was looking for.

“I discovered that backstage theater work was as touch-and-go as being a singer. You’re working show-to-show again, no benefits, running around town,” she says.

“So, I was, like, ‘What am I doing? I should just go back to furniture.’”

Back when Whittaker was married and working with her now-ex-husband in his furniture-upholstery business, she had done mostly administrative work, marketing, invoicing, and such, but she’d learned a few things about upholstery. Enough, anyway, to upholster her own set of Ikea chairs. So, when in 2012, Cygnet laid off Whittaker’s whole department, she decided to go back to school.

From zero to Etsy in a year.

The San Diego Continuing Education course catalog is daunting. We used to get it in the mail, and I would flip through it occasionally, my eyes glazing over at the amount of campus addresses, room numbers, dates, schedules, and course descriptions.

While English classes account for a large percentage of those offered at San Diego Continuing Education (over 1000), they hardly give the whole picture of this behemoth of an institution. They fall under such headings as GED Preparation; Foods and Nutrition; Personal Development and Finance; Dance; Health, Safety & Sustainability; Business and Career Development; Law; Drama; Art; Computers; Electronics; Culinary; Fashion and Textiles; and Welding. They range from one day to three weeks to 18 weeks in length; from two hours to all day.

“I’d heard about this upholstery program,” Whittaker says. “[I said] ‘I’m going to go learn what I don’t know, figure out what I’m missing, skill-wise. I knew that the teacher had 40 years of experience.”

The program is offered at the San Diego Continuing Education’s Educational Cultural Complex off of Imperial Avenue and Interstate 805. The campus, which is considered the “Campus of Excellence for Career and Technical Education,” consists of three single-story buildings and three covered repair areas for short-term job-training programs.

“I was surprised at how nice the facility was. It’s a beautiful facility, state of the art, with every piece of equipment you could ever want,” Whittaker says.


Molly's furniture projects

Molly discusses restoring vintage furniture and upholstery, work that she has learned to do as a result of free classes from San Diego Continuing Education.

Molly discusses restoring vintage furniture and upholstery, work that she has learned to do as a result of free classes from San Diego Continuing Education.

The upholstery program consists of three parts: basic, auto/marine, and household. Graduates who complete the 250 hours for basic and household and 350 hours for auto/marine receive a certificate of completion, based on competency standards approved by an industry advisory board.

In the basic-upholstery class, the program provides vinyl projects to teach basic skills, such as sewing cushions, doing circles and corners, putting zippers in, and so on. But in the other two more advanced classes, students work on projects that they bring in. Once she was ready, Whittaker put a call out to friends and family who needed upholstery work done.

“I just started cramming in as many projects as I could possibly do,” she says. “I went crazy. I knew I had three people lined up when I started school, and within a month, I had way more people than I could get to.”

In the advanced classes, in addition to bringing in their own projects, students also provide the fabric, and then the instructor assesses a fee at the end of every student project, to cover thread, staples, chalk, and other supplies.

The fee, Whittaker says, “was fairly low. I mean, I did a Mercedes top to bottom, and it was, like, $50 for the fee.”

Whittaker was not allowed to charge for the projects she did, but she did arrange for her fabric and supply fees to be paid for the person for whom she did the upholstering.

“A lot of the guys come in because they have a hot rod and they don’t want to pay to have it done, so they come in and do the upholstery on their car. They re-do their car, and then they disappear and you never see them again,” she says. “People drop out like crazy because they’re, like, ‘Oh, this is hard.’ They sit down at this thing,” Whittaker gestures toward her sewing machine, “and then it’s over. A lot of people quit within a day or two or a week.”

President Beebe admits that, yes, having a free program does make it easier for students to drop out, but the populations that San Diego Continuing Education aims to serve have challenges that make it necessary for the institution to do things differently than they might otherwise.

“People drop out or don’t succeed in education for other reasons than academics. They have the capability and the potential academically to go on, but life gets in the way. Kids are there, they have to get a job, they have parents they have to take care of,” he says. “We have to be as flexible as we possibly can in our educational offerings to be able to accommodate folks. We have to make it open entry, open exit, so you can come and go as you please.”


Tina and her handbag projects

Tina talks about her handbag projects, work that she has learned to do as a result of free classes from San Diego Continuing Education.

Tina talks about her handbag projects, work that she has learned to do as a result of free classes from San Diego Continuing Education.

And so you have guys with hot rods who just want to fix their cars and people like my friend Tina who dropped out after taking two and a half of the three courses offered in the Sewn Product Business program. Tina’s in the first third Beebe mentioned, those who go on to college, but while in the program, life happened to her, too. She dropped out to have a baby. But by then, she’d taken her business from zero to Etsy in under a year, and she didn’t feel the need to go back and finish.

“I didn’t care about the certificate,” she tells me over the phone from a trade show in New York where she’s selling her up-cycled handbags. “Two years ago, Tina Frantz Designs didn’t exist. I had an idea, but I didn’t have the sewing skills or the marketing skills to make it happen. I wanted the knowledge of how to put those things together. And I got it.”

A really weird mix of people.

For the 2012/2013 academic year, 50 people enrolled in the upholstery program, and 44 certificates of completion were awarded. The open enrollment policies mean people come and go as they need to, and not all classes are offered every term, so it can take anywhere from a year to five years or more for students to complete the program.

Because of her experience with her ex-husband’s business, Whittaker knew what she was in for, and she knew what she wanted to get out of it. So, she attended classes from 7:30 a.m. until 1:15 p.m. Monday through Friday and graduated from the program in just over a year.

Her classmates, she says, were “a really weird mix of people,” including some currently in the military, some just out of prison, some retired and seeking new skills, some right out of high school, and some fresh from high paying and uninspiring corporate gigs. Every few weeks, new people would show up, and others would drop. But those who did stay became close friends. Even after their graduation from the program, a core group of them, who call themselves “the A Team,” meet every month or so for pancake breakfasts. Among the six or seven members are a retired metal worker from the City of San Diego named Juan, who fixed the recliner mechanism on the recliner Whittaker was upholstering, and Yesenia, a young mother of three who has since invited Whittaker and her boyfriend to “birthday parties with piñatas.”

“I’ve had this great cultural exchange that never would have happened,” Whittaker says. “I meet people in the art world or the singing world, but this was a whole new world for me, and I really loved it.”

And besides the expertise of the instructor and the bonds she created with her classmates, Whittaker found the overall atmosphere of her Continuing Ed experience to be one of respect.

“I really enjoyed that they treated you like an adult there. It’s not, ‘You’re in school,’” she mimics a menacing voice, “and there weren’t a bunch of silly assignments. You don’t get berated. You don’t fail. I mean, Mr. Romero would let us mess up; he’d let us ruin a project and learn from it. And on the other hand, he could see you from across the room and he’d call out, ‘Hey, why don’t you try this?’”

Back in his office, Beebe praises Continuing Ed’s faculty, explaining that the institution as it is can’t do without instructors like Ernie Romero and Gretchen Bitterlin. Of the 600 contract and adjunct faculty members who teach for San Diego Continuing Ed, 55 percent have been with the institution for ten years or more.

“[Our teachers] are absolutely off-the-charts amazing at being able to work with a class of 25, 30 people that are all coming in and out at different times and that are all at different levels,” he says.

Bitterlin, on the other hand, says it’s the students who are responsible for the successes of the programs.

“We are very, very blessed,” she says. “In adult education, there’s no such thing as a discipline problem. Very rarely. They are so grateful for their education, and they’re such dedicated students.”

When I’m in the flow, I’m cool.

Today, Whittaker has a handful of projects lined up. But she’s also realizing there’s more to running a business than just the skill of the services offered. There’s the website to think about, business cards, and that catchy name that still eludes her.

“Jobs are rolling through now, and it’s, like, Okay, do I take a deposit? How do I estimate? I’m still learning that a little bit. Because you’ll estimate one thing and then you’ll tear [the furniture] open and it’s broken inside, and it’ll take another five hours. So, how do you negotiate those things with customers? And bookkeeping,” she says. “All of it together is a little overwhelming. Once I’m out here and I’m digging on [a project], and I’m in the flow, I’m cool.”

Whittaker’s convinced that she’ll find more financial stability in upholstery than she did in the performing arts. She saw her ex-husband’s upholstery business gain new business every year, she says. And in class she learned that in the next few years, there will be an exodus of retiring tradespeople. She plans to be one of those people available to fill the “huge need” the retirees leave behind.

“It’s easier selling that than a band,” she says, laughing. “‘We can do “Ave Maria” at your wedding’... That’s a hard sell.”

And, she reminds me, “I’m walking out of this with no added debt.”

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