Albert Lea’s adult learning center looks at needs of community members

Published 9:00 am Saturday, February 24, 2018

Building up the community.

That’s what education does, especially adult education, according to Penny Jahnke.

Originally from Alden, Jahnke has been the adult education coordinator at Brookside Education Center in Albert Lea for about seven years, a position she is extremely passionate about. She oversees the different programs offered through the Albert Lea Adult Learning Center — formerly referred to as Adult Basic Education — which include classes for working toward a GED, United States citizenship, obtaining a drivers license, learning English, math, computer literacy skills and paraeducator training, among others. Jahnke said she is looking into adding a pre-CNA class, as well.

She said they’ve pulled away from calling the programs Adult Basic Education because “there is nothing basic about what students are learning.” Albert Lea Adult Learning Center better reflects their students, she said.

Adult education courses are offered at Brookside Education Center, 211 W. Richway Drive in Albert Lea. Colleen Harrison/Albert Lea Tribune

For Jahnke, the variety of her job always keeps it interesting.

One day, she could be helping out in Brookside Education Center’s day care, while on another she could be helping with a drivers education course or finding grant money to help a student pay for taking his or her GED test.

“Every day is different,” Jahnke said.

She said the students who come through the center are hardworking, driven individuals who are looking to better themselves and improve their families’ lives. Many of them work and buy or rent homes in the area, as well as send their children to area schools and shop at local businesses.

“I think they’re a huge asset to our community,” Jahnke said of her students.

She estimated over 50 percent of the students work and take care of family members on top of going to school.

A number of those students are refugees or immigrants living and working in the U.S., and bring a lot of diversity to the area.

Thirty-five out of 146 students in adult education programs at the center hail from Myanmar — many of whom are Karen refugees. The next country of origin with the highest number of students is the U.S. at 34. The rest of the students come from countries such as Mexico, Thailand, Sudan, Cuba, Vietnam, Jordan, Denmark, Venezuela, Guatemala, Ukraine and Brazil.

Jahnke said a huge misconception is people thinking those students are potential drains on the system or are trying to simply use resources, which could not be further from the truth. They put an incredible amount back into the community, she said.

The courses aren’t just for immigrants looking to obtain U.S. citizenship, though. Jahnke said she recently had a 51-year-old woman come in to test for her GED so she could get a promotion through her employer.

She said it’s refreshing to work with the people she does, as they’re constantly looking to better themselves and work hard.

“I think our students give just as much back to us,” she said.

The learning center also works with a number of different agencies to help its students, such as the United Way, Semcac and Human Services, among others.

“It isn’t just about getting an education, it’s about providing,” Jahnke said. “We want to make sure we’re meeting their needs.

“We really look at the whole family to be a resource, and are looking at how we can help all of our community members.”

An example: Jahnke had a student — a single, working mother — who worked nights and had to figure out how she would get her young daughter to a school musical performance. Jahnke called the school on her behalf, before walking up and down Brookside, eventually finding someone else with a child performing in the same concert who could get the woman’s daughter to the performance.

“It doesn’t have to be a big, grand gesture,” Jahnke said. “It can be small, but still be significant. … I don’t do anything amazing.”

That’s what she loves about her job.

“Little things can make a big difference in people’s loves.”

Jahnke credits the success of the learning center to not only the students, but the people she works with. She said it’s a “well-oiled machine” that works well together to best help its students succeed.

She said one of the biggest misconceptions some students have is that they’re too old to learn. She said that couldn’t be further from the truth. The adult learning center has students ranging in age from 17 to 76, and Jahnke said they tell their students the hardest part is just walking in the door when coming to learn. 

Other students are surprised at how much the center wants to help. Jahnke said they’ve set up dental clinics, day care, library internet hotspots and other resources to help their students have better access to learning and better resources in general.

The constant goal the adult learning center looks to achieve is to serve its community, Jahnke said. A big part of that will be branching out and working with potential employers to see what they need in the workforce locally.

“How are we meeting the needs of all our citizens, all of our community members,” she said. “People need workers. How can we work together and train to meet the workforce needs?”

146 – students enrolled in an Albert Lea Adult Learning Center course or program

13 – Different countries students come from who attend classes at the center

7 – Years Jahnke has worked as the adult education coordinator at Brookside Education Center

About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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