PORTLAND — Everyone from the street sweeper to the bank executive is being affected by the recession, which is also threatening many public programs as leaders look to trim expenses.
But as layoffs mount and employers become more selective about who they hire, Adult Education programs in Portland and South Portland are becoming more attractive as people seek new job and life skills.
Gail Senese, co-director of the Portland Adult Education Program, said that fall enrollment in the district’s job skills program increased by 5 percent, adding another 23 students. As of Jan. 6, the program has enrolled nearly twice that number, adding 44 new students.
While those numbers illustrate the increased relevancy of adult education in these tough economic times, Senese said that 39 percent of adults enrolled in the job skills program are first-time students of the adult education program.
“These are people who are looking to learn new skills and improve the skills they already have,” Senese said.
Senese said the job skills program offers 57 classes in three areas of concentration: office skills, accounting and medical. Students can learn a variety of computer skills – from typing to programming and Web design – or lay the foundation for a medical career as records keeper or certified nursing assistant, where jobs are still in demand.
“They see retail disappearing and they feel that health care is going to stay,” Senese said
Although adult education has been historically viewed as a way for people to earn a high school diploma or equivalency, the district’s programming is beginning to look more and more like a community college.
“We’re not trying to be a community college,” Senese said, “but we fill a more short-term, focused need.”
The programs also offer affordability. Senese said residents can enroll in a 36-hour computer class for only $64, nonresidents can enroll for $74. Medical and accounting classes cost a little more because of the textbook, she said.
The growth of Portland’s programs appears to be keeping with a statewide trend, according to the Maine Department of Education, which recently collected two years’ worth of enrollment data from about half of the adult education programs throughout the state.
Based on figures provided by 54 of the state’s 107 adult education programs, total enrollments increased last fall by 29 percent over the 2007 total of 2,990 and by 33 percent over the 2006 total of 2,293. The greatest increase was in job skills programming, which nearly doubled from 2,669 students to 5,390.
College enrichment courses, meanwhile, rose statewide over that same two-year period by 115 percent, from 171 to 367, and community enrichment courses saw a 6-percent increase, from 14,402 to 15,255.
In South Portland, the first year of adult education has been an overwhelming success, according to secretary Heather Tolan, who said 48 students enrolled in the fall semester, which focused on English language learners.
“We expect to have more this (spring) semester,” she said.
Final spring enrollments, she said, won’t be known until after an informational and enrollment session takes place Thursday night at South Portland High School. Adults will have more course options to choose from this spring, since the program is adding job skills and personal enrichment courses, which are in strong demand in the community.
Portland’s program, which serves between 4,500 and 4,600 adults, is broken down into three categories: job skills, academics, and community life, all of which are showing growth.
It also appears that more people are looking to adult education for recreational and cultural enrichment courses. Senese said the community life programming, as of Jan. 6, experienced a 26-percent increase in enrollment, adding 97 more adults over its 2008 winter enrollment of 366 students.
Adult education operates on a budget of about $1.9 million, about one-third of which is funded by local tax dollars. The rest is provided by federal and state matching grants and enrollment fees.
Senese said the community life program is the only one that sustains itself through enrollment fees, rather than using local tax dollars.
Senese also sees adult education as filling another role.
“We’re important for economic development,” she said. “We’re helping people get employed, stay employed and remain taxpayers – getting off assistance and paying into the system.”