Adult education offers a ‘good life’ through barbershop training


From the outside, the Abram Friedman Occupational Center is a case study in institutional drabness. The hulking, cube-shaped building on the ragged fringes of downtown L.A. and near the Santa Monica Freeway has few windows and zero ornamentation.

But take the stairs to to Room 223 on the second floor, and you step into a different world. The big and bright space is a bustling, fully-equipped barbershop -- rotating striped barber’s pole included.   

This is the Los Angeles Unified School District’s adult barbering program, part of the LAUSD’s Division of Adult and Career Education. Although not well known compared to K-12 schools, 70,000 students are enrolled in the L.A. Unified adult ed classes. They learn everything from English as a second language to automobile repair to bookkeeping.

The students generally left high school long ago, some with diplomas and others without. And some have made mistakes in the years since: joining gangs, serving prison time, having children before they were ready. The students hope the skills they learn in adult education will help them fix past mistakes and build better lives.

When there aren’t any customers, students practice on manikins or each other. Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez

To graduate, the enrolled students will spend 1,500 hours learning everything there is to know about human hair -- how to clean, cut, color, and shape it. They have to put classroom work into practice by giving 750 individual haircuts to pass the class.

Many of the cuts are given to walk-in customers, who pay the bargain price of $3.00 for a basic trim.

Greater LA visited the LAUSD’s barbering class to meet the students and teachers.

Ron Koziel, lead instructor. Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez

Ron Koziel is the lead instructor in the barbering program. He’s been cutting hair since 1965 and teaching it since 1977. Koziel wants his students to think of themselves as artists-in-training and every head of hair as a kind of canvas.

“Learn how to look at somebody,” said Koziel. “Look at their facial structure. Look at their hair. Look at their hair growth. Create from there.”

Anthony Contreras. Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez

Completing the barbering course costs $2,000 and more than a year of classroom work. But students will be ready to take the state’s barbering exam to receive a state license.

Student Anthony Contreras, his face partially covered in tattoos, enrolled in the class after serving time in prison. He hopes the education he receives here will mean a clean break from his old life, which included struggles with drug addiction and domestic violence.

“This program has kept me responsible,” said Contreras, who has covered up old gang tattoos with new ones that represent hope and a positive view of the future. “New life, you know, reborn,” said Contreras.

Anthony Contreras gives a haircut. Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez.

Along with teaching how to master scissor and razor skills, Koziel also tries to teach his students the importance of customer relations.

“Some of these people are from the streets where they never had a personality,” said Koziel. “Now they have to deal with customers.”

Steffan Barrow enrolled in the barbering class after her cosmetology business went broke last year. She hopes a barber’s license will allow her to start over with a wider base of customers. A mother of five, Barrow juggles this class with family responsibilities, taking taking care of her youngest 13-year-old daughter and a grandchild. “So I need to be able to make money different hours of the day to help my daughter with the baby,” said Barrow.

Steffan Barrow. Photo credit: Saul Gonzalez

“I am the breadwinner of my family,” said Barrow. “I have five children and a grandson and my four oldest are grown and gone. So I still have this last one and she's 13. I still need to put her through school, get her into college, and get her on her way. Then I have my grandson to look after.”

“I need to rest, but I don’t,” said Barrow.

Instructor Ron Koziel says if the students work hard, pass the class and get licensed they’ll have a shot at better lives.

“They may never become rich, but they will have enough money to live a decent life, a good life.”

Some of the students will start that new life when they graduate from the barbering program next month.



Saul Gonzalez