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  • 19 Dec 2014

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ESL program gets cut in hard budget lesson

Money woes reduces program matching Immigrant residents with PCC language tutors


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Landscaper Ramiro Hernandez hugs son, Christian before heading to off to his landscaping job in Cornelius. Hernandez has received ESL tutoring at PCCs Willow Creek campus, and hopes to become proficient enough in English to eventually get a factory job.Imagine taking your 16-year-old autistic son to doctors’ appointments and teacher conferences — if you didn’t speak English.

Lourdes Diaz moved from Mexico to Beaverton 18 years ago but, like many immigrants, she has lived in a world where Spanish was spoken and learning English was deferred. Eventually, her lack of English became a burden.

Diaz, 36, works at night as a janitor. When her boss began leaving notes about which offices needed vacuuming or dusting, she couldn’t read them. She also couldn’t leave a note telling her boss she had finished the job. She couldn’t tell doctors or school officials her concerns about her son.

“I need to explain how he feels,” Diaz says.

Portland Community College offers English as a second language classes for those who want to learn the language, but Diaz is among many who can’t take those classes. Some don’t speak English well enough to learn in a classroom; others don’t have the time. And many can’t get into PCC’s waitlisted ESL classes.

For these people, PCC’s Voluntary Literacy Tutoring Program has been the answer. It has been remarkable for its ability to deliver huge return on a small public investment. Last year, more than 360 volunteers tutored 1,476 students, including Diaz.

Despite delivering incredible bang for the buck, volunteer literacy tutoring is facing hard times. Mt. Hood and Clackamas community colleges have dissolved their volunteer programs, and PCC is cutting back, eliminating two of its four paid coordinator positions and proposing to reduce the hours for the two remaining positions.

PCC administrators, facing reduced state and federal funding, say they have little choice. But budget constraints aren’t the only impetus for the cutbacks.

According to PCC administrators, the demand for free English tutors has been falling in recent years, especially from the metro area’s west side. Ten years ago, they say, their volunteer tutors were serving more than 700 adult students in the Beaverton/Hillsboro area. This year, only about 150 Washington County students such as Diaz are getting help, and districtwide, calls for ESL instruction are down.

The drop-off is puzzling. PCC officials say the migration of new residents from Mexico has slowed, and might be the cause.

Immigrant numbers up

Still, Portland has had a steady increase in the number of people who live in homes where English is not the language spoken, according to U.S. census data. The number of Portland residents in non-English speaking homes jumped from 83,128 in 2000 to 102,790 in 2011, according to the census. But if PCC administrators are right, the last two years, not included in census data, reflect a different dynamic. The Portland area might be seeing the arrival of fewer immigrants with low-level English skills.

Diminishing demand was not evident in the Cully neighborhood when PCC abandoned its volunteer ESL tutoring program at the Workforce Training Center on Northeast 42nd Avenue. David McKenzie coordinated more than 30 volunteers there who tutored 130 students last year before funding ran out.

McKenzie, with a master’s degree in education, says he was paid about $12,000 a year for his work — basically the cost of the program. But a city of Portland grant that had supported the program expired, and PCC officials say they couldn’t find the funds to continue McKenzie’s position.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - PCC vounteer ESL tutor Judy Lowder helps Marcelino Garcia with an English problem while Romero Hernandez, back left, and Lourdes Diaz work on their English skills. The PCC Willow Creek tutoring program is scheduled for cuts. At the Cully center more than tutoring was going on. After a paid teacher was relocated to another site, the actual ESL classes were taught by the volunteer tutors.

The goal of the workforce center is to help low-income immigrants find jobs and work toward careers. Achieving that goal will be impossible for many if they don’t first improve their English skills, McKenzie says. And tutors went beyond language instruction, taking students to the library and the community garden to introduce them to the larger Portland community.

PCC administrators say funding for ESL tutoring is hard to justify, partly because they have no benchmarks to prove students are making gains. McKenzie says the benchmarks should include the number of his ex-students who have library cards, plots in the community garden, entrepreneurial jobs and computers they’re trying to build following tutor-led trips to Free Geek.

Demand still high

Amy Youngflesh, director of the Cully Workforce Training Center, says losing the 30 volunteers that McKenzie helped attract and organize wasn’t a reaction to decreased demand.

The Cully center opened in 1998 and the majority of the ESL students until recently were Hispanic or Southeast Asian, according to Youngflesh. The past few years students from North African countries including Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia have entered the mix. If money were found to continue the tutoring program, Youngflesh is certain the four classes a day that had been offered, as well as the computer lab, would be filled.

About 70 of the ESL students at the workforce center were required to study English as a condition of receiving state benefits. With no ESL staff or tutors, those clients meet the requirement by spending time in front of the center’s computers, which have been outfitted with a Rosetta Stone English language program. The 60 Cully community members — mostly women — who were voluntarily studying English with tutors no longer receive instruction of any kind.

Most of the tutored students, Youngflesh says, have been able to find only low-level jobs with their limited English skills. The tutoring was about helping them take a next step.

“They generally get jobs, but for a job that would support a family, you need a higher level of English,” she says.

Volunteers have told Youngflesh that they’re ready to return if the program is restarted. But she isn’t optimistic that funding will be found to resuscitate the program.

“It’s a tiny bit of money,” she says. “I think sometimes that’s the hard part. It’s not sexy or new or innovative. A coordinator is seen as a little dull when you’re raising money.”

Also, McKenzie’s coordinator’s position, even at $12,000 a year, is not “sustainable.” There’s no assurance that if some foundation, nonprofit or public agency put up the money to continue the ESL tutoring program this year, the program would find a way to support itself in the future. The students pay no tuition.

Long-term payoff

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Janitor Marcelino Garcia is tutored in English so he learn to communicate with co-workers.Kay Talbot, who has served as a part-time coordinator for the PCC volunteer literacy program run out of the Southwest Portland Sylvania campus, says a longer view of funding might help.

Talbot is convinced that ESL tutoring indirectly pays off for PCC in the long run if it is viewed as the first step in an educational process for the lowest-level English speakers. “By helping people who can’t get into class, they will eventually be able to get into class,” she says.

At the PCC Willow Creek campus in Beaverton, volunteer Judy Lowder has been the primary instructor for a number of those low-level English speakers over the past two years. The Willow Creek volunteer program also is scheduled for cutbacks, with the proposed removal of coordinator Tracy Buseman-Carlstrom’s 26 hour-per-week position. Administrators say they hope to replace Buseman-Carlstrom with a less expensive “casual employee.”

Aloha resident Lowder, who writes computer manuals for corporations during the day, says many of her students don’t have the English skills to take a formal ESL class. Some don’t know how to take notes during class, or even how to participate in simple classroom activities such as matching words with definitions.

“It’s a skill to know how to learn that we just take for granted,” Lowder says.

Forty-year-old Ramiro Hernandez, receiving tutoring from Lowder, is just such a student. He came to the Portland area 22 years ago from Mexico and has worked as a farmworker since. Growing up in Mexico he never went to school. Here, he has been surrounded by people who speak Spanish.

Hernandez has four children, and teacher conferences where his 17-year-old son has acted as translator have left him wondering if he’s getting the teachers’ full messages.

“They (teens) never want to say the truth,” Hernandez says with a smile.

Hernandez has been tutored in English for three years and as his English has improved he has begun to dream of someday working at Intel in Beaverton.

Cuts keep coming

Tanya Batazhan, adult basic skills manager for PCC, says community colleges suffered federal sequestration cuts which amounted to 5 percent this year and could double or triple next year. Given the declining enrollment numbers, cutting the tutoring program simply makes sense.

“It’s a great benefit to the community, but faced with the budget cuts, programs that don’t bring in tuition are in the most vulnerable place because they don’t pay for themselves,” Batazhan says.

Declining demand is not an issue at the PCC campus on Southeast 82nd Avenue, where coordinator Kathleen Holloway has 40 volunteer tutors serving 280 students this year.

“We are overwhelmed,” Holloway says.

Holloway says budget cuts have forced the Southeast campus to cut the number of lower-level ESL classes at PCC, and those classes that remain have long waiting lists. The free ESL tutoring serves as “backup for the ESL department,” she says.

At the Southeast campus, Chinese and Vietnamese speakers have replaced Spanish speakers as the largest groups of enrollees, according to Holloway. She says she could easily recruit more volunteer tutors and help more immigrants. She simply doesn’t have the time, but she recognizes the cost.

“Volunteer literacy tutoring is in many cases the friendly face to the community for PCC,” she says.