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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Life skills resource has budget woes

When Kendra Phoenix went back to school, she needed more than books.

Struggling with despair after her daughter’s suicide and a divorce, she needed counseling. She needed job skills. She needed a math refresher and computer training. A lot of the time, she felt she desperately needed someone to talk to.

She found all that through Life Skills/Women’s Programs, a 30-year-old collection of services and education run by the Institute for Extended Learning.

“They helped me every step of the way,” said Phoenix, 57, who’s just weeks away from earning her associate’s degree as a hearing instrument specialist.

Now teachers and students are worried that the program so crucial to Phoenix and hundreds of other women is being dismantled. Administrators insist that programs won’t be eliminated or access reduced.

Faced with rising costs and dropping enrollments, the IEL plans this fall to move two faculty positions out of Women’s Programs and disperse the programs to other campuses within the Community Colleges of Spokane system. One class, Project Self-Sufficiency, will be coed. It’s unclear whether an opening for a program manager will be filled.

Women’s Programs has a budget of just more than $500,000, and cuts will take about 42 percent, according to figures provided by IEL officials.

For years, the programs have been centralized at the Lodge at Spokane Falls Community College. Critics say the changes will mean Women’s Programs will be able to serve fewer women struggling to recover from domestic violence, poverty, divorce and other problems that prevent them from becoming self-sufficient.

“For people who are as fragile as these people are, it takes every ounce of their courage to come to a place like ours,” said Mary Murphy, an adjunct instructor with the programs for seven years. “We are one of the safest, most accessible places in town.”

Jim Perez, executive vice president of the IEL, said last week that the changes are being forced by financial realities, but should increase the number of women served by creating more access points throughout the community.

The cost of education and services for students in Women’s Programs is higher than other IEL programs, he said, and those programs also serve the poor and other at-risk people. Furthermore, he said, no programs are being eliminated – they’re being moved to eliminate duplication and align classes with other resources.

“The Women’s Program, I’ll be the first to admit, has been a tremendously successful program in terms of the effect it has on the women it’s served,” he said. “What we were faced with was trying to reduce our cost with minimal impact.”

‘Different location’

Among the chief concerns for program supporters is the elimination of a central location for Women’s Programs. They repeatedly refer to the center at the lodge as a safe place, a supportive place, a “womb” of safety.

“That’s what made the Life Skills/Women’s Programs so unique from any other women’s center program in the state,” said Dawn Hitchens, the former program manager for the project who said she left in January after becoming frustrated with the direction of the administration.

“The women felt safe for the first time, and they weren’t deathly afraid.”

Kristen Browning, an adjunct English instructor with the program, said the students are dealing with restraining orders, divorce petitions, child-care difficulties and abuse. Few would have any wide sense of what help is available, and many would be less likely to attend general, coed classes on their own.

“The whole is greater than its parts, with this women’s center,” she said.

For Tammara Peterson, 35, a former client of the programs, having all the resources and support in a single place was important.

“They really have their own little network,” she said. “One can provide one service, another one can provide another service. … Each one of these people connected me with another person. They all helped me together.”

Perez said that the shifts are intended to streamline, not eliminate, services. “It’s still the same programs, still the same services. It’s just in a different location,” he said. Earlier this month, Murphy wrote a letter to Gary Livingston, the CEO at CCS, asking that the changes be reconsidered.

“We were the positive models, mentors and adopted healthy family many of these women never experienced,” she wrote. “I have watched in horror as that safety net has been dismantled.”

Livingston said he understands that the changes are painful, but the economic downturn that has led to widespread layoffs in the region has affected the CCS system, too – though it’s managed to avoid large-scale layoffs so far.

“But we’re probably on the verge of that, particularly with the IEL,” he said.

‘Where do I go?’

Monica Walters, executive director of the YWCA, said that the program is a crucial way for women affected by domestic violence, homelessness and poverty to become self-sufficient.

The YWCA deals with women in crisis from violence and other problems; once they help women through the crisis, they need a place to refer women so they can get back on their feet and gain job skills, she said.

“When you spread the programs across different institutions and campuses, then you’re talking about, where do I go, how do I get there, now I’ve got to go to three different places for what I used to get in one spot,” Walters said.

When Lisa Greenwood, 43, first approached the Women’s Program 18 years ago, she wasn’t even sure what she needed.

“I didn’t have a job. I didn’t know how to support my kids. I didn’t have any skills,” she said. “I just didn’t know what to do.”

If the programs are spread over several locations, she said, “that would make it so hard to know where you should go in the first place.”

Perez said the IEL remains committed to Women’s Programs, and women will now have access to the program at more locations.

But with state funding based on enrollment of full-time equivalent students, or FTEs, the college has to consider its spending in an environment of declining enrollments, he said.

In Women’s Programs, the cost per FTE is about $5,900, he said. For the rest of the IEL programs, it’s about $3,900.

Trying to bring down costs in the women’s program – which represents slightly more than 2 percent of FTE students in the IEL – is important to serving a wide range of at-risk people, including people who don’t speak English, don’t have high school degrees or can’t read.

“That type of individual is not just characteristic of the women’s program,” Perez said. “It’s a good description of all the students we serve at the IEL and many of the students at SCC and SFCC.”

Women’s Programs supporters say that it’s highly effective because of the extra resources per student, and the savings to the IEL will exact a high cost on women’s lives.

Hitchens, the former program director, said comparing Women’s Programs with other programs is an apples-and-oranges exercise, since their clients have such unique and widespread needs.

She said she grew frustrated during her final months on the job, as resources and other support was steadily pulled away from her programs – something she feels was done to help bolster other IEL projects.

“My full work is women’s programs,” said Hitchens, who has moved to Olympia and taken another job. “I would have stayed if I felt there was a place to continue.”

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