ST. PETERSBURG ― When the Pinellas County School Board announced this fall that it would be closing the Tomlinson Adult Learning Center by the end of year, Patty Brewer’s phone began ringing off the hook.
Current and former students were reaching out to the longtime guidance counselor asking her what they could do to prevent the school’s closure. Adults have gone to the historic school on Mirror Lake in downtown St. Petersburg for vocational training, GED preparation, English-language classes and other varieties of educational support since the 1960s.
Students attended school board meetings and wrote letters to protest the closure. A change.org petition received more than 1,000 signatures, but the efforts were to no avail.
After more than 50 years of adult instruction — and nearly 100 years as a school — the last day of class in the building was Friday. The school district cited declining enrollment and financial losses as the primary reason for shuttering Tomlinson’s doors.
A second chance
Tomlinson served as an outpost for Pinellas County residents who wanted to learn English, or to get a second chance at education after dropping out of school when they were children. It’s been described as a “mini UN” — a meeting point for some of Pinellas’ most vulnerable — immigrants who don’t speak English, people with learning disabilities who were failed in grade school, men and women with young children, stuck in warehouse jobs and eager for the opportunity to earn greater incomes.
In her time with the school — just seven years — Brewer said she’s seen the effect of adult education first hand.
A man in his 50s, learning to read. A mother and daughter duo who came together to get their General Educational Development certificates ― or GEDs ― and now have their own business. A refugee with no English language skills who found community in her classroom.
“It’s just incredible,” said Brewer, who has served as gatekeeper, guru and cheerleader for thousands of students who have passed through Tomlinson over the years that she’s been there. “Adult ed is special because it’s a chance to catch those students who didn’t succeed the first time through.”
Godfrey Watson, principal of Tomlinson, echoed that.
“We are that program that catches people before they fall off the precipice and give up on education forever, so we have to make sure that we make it count,” said Watson, who previously worked in elementary education. “We have people from all walks of life and we meet them where they are. That’s what makes adult education beautiful. It’s the best move I’ve ever made.”
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Although Pinellas County offers other adult education opportunities — through Pinellas Technical College, satellite locations, and adult education centers in Clearview and Clearwater — Watson said that the Tomlinson location was special because of its storied history and welcoming atmosphere. Watson said that students with special needs felt comfortable there.
But, Watson said, it’s not the place, it’s the people, that made the program special.
“And the people are still going to be around,” Watson said. “Things will just look a little different.”
Soon after the school’s closure was finalized, teachers and students began selecting alternate classroom locations for the January term. Both Brewer and Watson will be based in Lakewood in southern Pinellas. Other teachers and students have opted to enroll elsewhere.
About 90 percent of students from Tomlinson are already enrolled in programs at other locations, according to district officials.
Adjustments aren’t easy
Mark Hunt, executive director of adult education for Pinellas Schools, said that he understands that people are reluctant to change and saddened by the closure of the Tomlinson center. But Hunt said the decision to close the Mirror Lake building wasn’t made overnight.
In the 2017-18 school year, more than 1,700 students enrolled in classes at the school, according to Hunt. This past semester, he said only 251 students were enrolled at Tomlinson.
Hunt acknowledged that the pandemic may play a role in the enrollment drop, but said that even if enrollment numbers were to go up, the building would still be leaking money. Despite being a part of the school district, adult education is funded differently than K-12, Hunt said. It’s not based on headcount.
“Adult education is underfunded,” Hunt said. “Each year, we go to the state and say ‘this is how much money we need to keep the programs we have running, afloat’, and they come back and say ‘This is how much you are getting. Make it work,’” Hunt said. “It’s a balancing act.”
Hunt said running the program over the last 5 years has cost about $2 million more than what’s covered in the funding provided by the state. That doesn’t include the additional costs of building repairs.
“It’s the reality we’re working with,” Hunt said.
The change, said Hunt, could end up making adult education accessible to more people around the county, by increasing the number of locations adult education is offered through future partnerships with high schools and community centers in people’s neighborhoods. It could result in night classes getting offered in high schools closer to where students live.
But Cassandra Smart, a student who was enrolled at Tomlinson, said that closure of the school she was attending is going to have serious consequences for her and some of her peers. That shouldn’t be brushed over.
“We’re here because we need that extra help and haven’t been successful in school in the past,” Smart said. “This is the first time I’ve felt comfortable at school, that I’ve believed in myself, and now they’re going to take that progress away.”
Smart is a St. Petersburg native. She said her family life was rough when she was growing up, and a learning disability resulted in her dropping out of school in the 8th grade. She thought she might go back to school later, but then she got pregnant and had to start working to support her kids.
This year, at 39-years-old, she made the plunge and enrolled at Tomlinson.
“This place is important. It’s important to have a school where I feel safe,” Smart said. “It’s not going to be easy for me to just change. But I have kids. I am doing this for me and for them, so I have no choice but to make it work.”
Also enrolled at Tomlinson is Smart’s sister, Latisha Smart.
Latisha Smart said that she had previously been enrolled in a GED program out of a high school, but she felt embarrassed and distracted being there with so many younger kids.
“I ended up not going back,” Smart said. “Tomlinson worked because it was especially for me.”
Brewer, the guidance counselor, said that her challenge this next term is going to be finding a way to make sure that adult learners in Pinellas, especially the students she’s worked with, still feel that way.
“We can’t do anything (about the building) now, but what we can do is make sure the students feel like they still have access to the services they need,” Brewer said. “We’re going to keep the spirit of Tomlinson alive.”
For information about adult education opportunities in Pinellas County, visit https://www.pcsb.org/Page/636 or call (727) 221-5395.