PCC Cuts Adult Literacy Program: Immigrants and Basic Skills Students Turned Away
The Volunteer Literacy Tutoring Program (VLT) will be closing its doors at the end of spring term after 37 years of work at PCC addressing the issue of adult literacy. The college has decided to de-fund and eliminate this program that provides vital services to non-credit ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) and ABE/GED students (Adult Basic Education & high school equivalency). The VLT program matches volunteer tutors from the community and local universities with immigrants, refugees, students with disabilities and others with low basic skills to improve their English, literacy and math. VLT coordinators across the district currently support about 200 volunteers who tutor approximately 700 students annually. The bulk of these students are at SE, Willow Creek/Rock Creek and in Tigard.
The instruction, mentoring and advising offered through VLT provide a lifeline to many students. Consider these students’ stories:
- David had almost no formal education in his country, Trinidad. With no family in Portland, he has struggled in his daily life with limited ability to read and write. When he was injured on the job, his tutor helped him complete paperwork for Worker’s Compensation. He is slowly gaining skills such as reading maps, timetables and filling out forms.
- Jean came from Chad just two years ago, arriving here with no English and though he was fluent in three languages, not literate in any one of them. He has made great progress in learning English and reading and writing for the first time. Highly motivated, he studies with several tutors during the week and also attends ESOL classes at PCC SE. Without tutoring, classroom instruction alone would not have been enough and he wouldn’t have received the personal attention needed to adapt to life in the US.
- Juan is now a young adult but he came to the US from Central America when he was a minor, fleeing poverty and a lack of opportunity. He is learning English quickly and appreciates the additional, cost-free study time that he gets through VLT.
- Mei Ying, Tuyen and Phuong are beginning level ESOL students but they have not been able to get into classes at SE due to a lack of space. With little English, they were confused about registration procedures. In the VLT office, however, they found friendly faces to help them navigate the PCC system and are now studying with a tutor while they wait to get into class.
The administration claims that a federal grant, ending in June, and declining numbers in the program are the reasons for this closure but their argument doesn’t hold water. The grant money made up only a third of the program’s budget and though demographics around the district have shifted, there are still significant numbers of students being served. If volunteer hours were tallied at minimum wage – more than 30,000 last year – the value would more than cover a small program budget that employs part-time coordinators at six locations. The college believes that community partners will pick up these services but other agencies have clearly stated that they don’t have the capacity to cover the loss. The administration has decided to transfer these funds to credit-level students at the expense of those with low skills.
Neglecting this marginalized segment of our community contradicts the college’s mission, however. Recently developed PCC Strategic Initiatives prioritize creating opportunity in the community and fostering a culture that is renowned for diversity, equity and inclusion. Are these merely empty words? The college appears to be proceeding in exactly the opposite direction. In these times of rising anti-immigrant sentiment, VLT instead builds bridges, weaves the community together, and utilizes the skills, caring and effort of volunteers to support those who are disadvantaged and isolated. PCC students, staff and the community benefit greatly from the work of these dedicated and often long-term volunteers.
The college’s actions are short-sighted and ignore the long history and important function of this program. VLT serves everybody’s interests by helping to address the social ills connected with low adult literacy: crime, homelessness, unemployment, poor K-12 performance, high health care costs and more. For many, VLT also serves as a gateway to other PCC programs. It is rightly a part of a taxpayer-funded institution.
April is “Whiteness History Month”. In the spirit of sincere inquiry, the college needs to re-examine its priorities in order to serve immigrants, refugees and those with disabilities and low basic skills, precisely those who have been disenfranchised by the mainstream system. PCC must not abandon those who are most vulnerable and, because of their lack of language and literacy abilities, least able to advocate for themselves. PCC needs to reverse its decision, adequately fund services for all ESOL and ABE/GED students and restore college funds for the VLT program.