Betty Kellum dropped out of high school her senior year because she was pregnant and never went back. She worked fast-food jobs and spent four years as the in-home caregiver for her mother. After her mother died, she couldn’t find a job and applied for welfare.
Along with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the state gave Kellum two options while she got her General Educational Development diploma: Look for part-time work or enroll in WorkFirst Life Skills, a state-sponsored, 12-week program at Spokane Community Colleges designed to help people improve their chances of getting a job by learning some basics of adult working life.
Already working on her GED diploma at the college, Kellum opted for Life Skills. She learned things like time management, goal-setting and communication, along with creating a resume and handling a job interview. It gave her self-confidence and urged her to think long-term and convinced her to seek a degree in addiction studies in the hopes of someday becoming a chemical dependency counselor – something she never would have imagined before starting the program.
“They encouraged you to better your life,” she said.
Kellum is on her way to that degree, working on an associate degree at Spokane Falls Community College. But Life Skills, which over the last three years had an average of 690 people each month in classes around Washington, is on life support.
The state is pulling the plug on the program at the end of this month.
It’s a victim of hard-to-quantify results and tighter state budgets that forced a 25 percent cut in the amount the Department of Social and Health Services gave to the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges, which runs Life Skills and some other WorkFirst programs designed to get people off welfare and into jobs. After several years of cutting Life Skills, the board decided in October to eliminate the program to cover some of the $5 million drop in funding for the coming biennium. The colleges will focus instead on vocational and academic programs.
For Spokane Community Colleges, that means for the first time in more than a dozen years they won’t offer Life Skills or its predecessor, Success Skills, which provided similar training to adult students seeking GED diplomas.
Other state programs designed to get the unemployed back into the workforce, such as Career Path and WorkSource, will continue. But Vicki Brandt, who has taught Life Skills or its predecessor for nearly 14 years, said those programs are different.
“They’re fine for students who just needed a refresher and a new resume,” Brandt said. They aren’t geared for people struggling with lower reading levels, poor self-esteem, troubled home lives or poor communication.
“Communication skills are huge problems for many of our students,” Brandt said. Life Skills works with them on compromise and cooperation.
While many people develop those skills at home or in school, most Life Skills students come from environments where those things aren’t modeled or mentored, said Geri Swope, SCC dean of Adult Basic Education. They can’t be taught in a two-hour workshop.
“If the goal is to get these students employed and stay employed … this is a good start,” Swope said.
Holly Edwards will be among the last students in SCC’s Life Skills program when she finishes on Thursday. A mother of two who is going through a divorce, Edwards was a massage therapist who let her license lapse. The current demand for massage therapists is low, she said, so the state was reluctant to pay to help her renew her license, and she didn’t have the skills to find other work.
“I didn’t even know how to do a resume,” she said. Edwards graduated from Central Valley High School in 2000, but admits it was a struggle. She sees Life Skills as a program for “late bloomers” – people who may have had a rough start. She learned problem solving, coping skills and goal-setting. She also learned how she learns, with visual and tactile cues, which she thinks will help as she studies to become a physical therapy assistant and works on a long-term goal of being licensed both for physical and massage therapy, making her more marketable to employers.
It’s the kind of goal she wouldn’t have set, or even considered, 12 weeks ago.
“It’s a doorway of opportunity, and I stepped into it,” Edwards said.
Although guidelines for Life Skills came from the state board along with a block grant, community colleges were free to develop their own curriculums. SCC developed a 12-week “open course” in which each week focused on a skill, like budgeting or time management, keeping healthy or goal-setting. The colleges offered Life Skills at four locations around the Spokane area, with one part-time and four full-time instructors, for $150,000 a year to cover salaries and benefits.
“We believed in the program,” said Sarah Stiffler, the SCC program support supervisor. “We were providing this because it benefited our students.”
With Life Skills students, instructors would look for points in their everyday lives where they achieved goals they set in class, Swope said. When they finish the course, they may seek an associate degree at the community college or a four-year degree elsewhere rather than immediately return to the workforce and get off Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
“If we’re looking at data, it just becomes mushy,” Swope said.
That lack of data may have been fatal to Life Skills in October, when the state board was looking at what to cut in the array of training programs to reduce unemployment.
Life Skills advocates were asked “if there’s any way you can show us the data that would be a reason for keeping this around,” Stiffler said. They couldn’t.
That was a problem with the Legislature demanding “performance-based outcomes” from DSHS and other agencies in the consortium to provide training, said Carla Reyes, chief of programs and policy in the agency’s Community Services Division of the Economic Services Administration. The emphasis is on how many people go through the program and find jobs.
The department is not abandoning the concept, Reyes said, and other programs will incorporate some of the same skills as part of their “modules.” Life Skills, to some degree, was too broad and the agency might contract with the state community colleges for more specific training.
Roberta Depner, who has taught the classes for SCC in its Valley facility for two years, calls the program’s cancellation a huge loss. The many other programs currently designed to get people off welfare and into the workforce aren’t as flexible or as individually directed as Life Skills.
“Programs generally don’t change people. They’re take it or leave it. Fit in,” Depner said. Life Skills was different because it was tailored to each student’s individual challenges.
The need won’t go away, Depner predicts, and someone will eventually create a new program to fill it. That may even be a program just like Life Skills.
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