When the news came that area schools would continue distance learning, Vancouver mother Nour Alkafaween knew she’d have to be there to help her children with their online classes.
“I have two in school,” Alkafaween said. “There is no time for me to change my clothes during the day.”
But that meant pausing her own education.
Alkafaween, her husband and their three children are Jordanian refugees. Alkafaween was studying English at Clark College’s transitional studies program in hopes of pursuing a career in psychology. Like hundreds of other students, however, Alkafaween has withdrawn from school due to the challenges of balancing classes with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
Clark College faces significant enrollment declines this fall in all programs. Those hits are particularly pronounced in transitional studies, which provides classes for English-language learners, as well as for high school completion and GED certificates. Last fall, 984 students were enrolled in the program. This semester, 482 students are enrolled.
That reflects statewide data. Transitional studies enrollment was down 25.9 percent statewide from spring 2019 to spring 2020, with enrollment in those classes dropping from 21,973 students to 16,279 statewide, according to the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. The office does not yet have fall enrollment data for all colleges across the state, but officials expect the trend to continue.
“Many of our students haven’t been in school for some time,” said William Durden, the board’s director of basic education for adults. “There are already barriers and challenges, but that online learning adds a whole new filter.”
Sara Gallow, division chair for transitional studies at Clark College, said she’s noticed a demographic shift in her English-language classes. Her students are trending younger, she said, and there aren’t as many parents as there once were. Gallow worries many of her students, like Alkafaween, are forced to decide between helping their own children and finishing their own education.
“A student can go from not even knowing the alphabet all the way up to college level,” Gallow said. “We work really hard to help them so they can get their high school diploma and transition to college.”
Gallow said some students are struggling with online learning, either because they don’t have a computer at home or because their internet connection is unreliable. Clark College has made loaner laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots available to students to curb those barriers, and Gallow said for many students, even that brief connection with their peers through a web camera can be powerful.
“I’ve heard from several students … about how isolated they feel,” Gallow said. “These are the only opportunities the students have to speak any English.”
‘Best bargain in town’
The income gap is stark for those without a high school diploma. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, those without a high school diploma have median weekly earnings of $606, while those who have completed high school have a median weekly income of $749. For those with a bachelor’s degree, earnings increase to $1,281 a week.
Clark College is targeting low-income residents for future enrollment, placing ads for the program on C-Tran buses and flyers in food bags from the Clark County Food Bank.
Gallow noted that courses in the program are cheap — for $25 a quarter, students can take as many transitional studies classes as they need. There are also waivers available for those who can’t afford the program cost.
“We are the best bargain in town,” she said.
Hopes for return
Olena Lokteva, who moved to the United States from Ukraine in 2019, is taking English-language classes at the college. When she first arrived in May 2019, she knew one sentence: “I don’t speak English.”
Today, Lokteva is studying academic grammar and hopes to find a job in accounting.
“At Clark College, we not only learn English, we also learn how to live in a new country, and how to quickly adapt to a new life,” she said. “It is impossible to overestimate the opportunities that Clark College gives me.”
Alkafaween hopes to return to Clark College soon — but not until after her own children are back in the classroom.
“My heart is with every mother who suffers like me with her children in distance learning,” she said.
Gallow looks forward to the day her students are able to return as well.
“By coming into our program, (students) can come as far as they want to get,” Gallow said. “They can become nurses, become welders, transfer to Washington State University Vancouver. They go wherever they want to go. We need them to start here.”