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News / Clark County News

Budget cuts looming over Vancouver Public Schools create stress, uncertainty

Students in Columbia River Mandarin language program fear loss of teacher

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 27, 2024, 6:07am

Iliana Gerianos admits she used to think her Mandarin Chinese teacher disliked her. As the years went by, however, Gerianos, a junior at Columbia River High School, said she realized she had it all wrong.

“It’s a tough class. It’s a lot of work, and she pushed us. Really, she just wanted me to learn and grow as a student,” Gerianos said of her teacher, Wenwen Tian.

Earlier this month, Gerianos and some of her fellow classmates in Columbia River’s Mandarin language program heard rumors that district budget cuts could cause Tian to be laid off next year — potentially hindering the students’ ability to finish the program they began in kindergarten.

“People started saying things a couple months ago, but I just didn’t think it was possible,” said Naomi Axelrod, another student at Columbia River. “Then, (last week), another one of my other teachers they didn’t think she would be here next year.”

Vancouver Public Schools is in the final phase of notifying staff whose positions are being cut next year as a result of a $35 million budget deficit. As with any layoffs, there’s widespread confusion and concern.

The district acknowledges the confusion. District spokeswoman Jessica Roberts said leaders are now moving on to evaluating how some programs and classes could change next year.

As of Wednesday, there were no concrete plans to cut any specific classes or programs, and any such reports are merely rumors, Roberts said.

However, with much still up in the air, news of teachers being cut is a legitimate stressor for students — especially high-schoolers like Gerianos and her classmates — as they try to get an idea of what their schedules will look like next year.

“One of us asked our counselor, but nobody really knows,” Axelrod said. “I don’t think anyone expects them to just cut the program, but it’s scary not knowing what I’m going to do next year.”

Keeping community

Axelrod and Gerianos are in the 12th year of the 13-year Mandarin Chinese immersion program.

The program is small — about 25 students in each graduating class — but intensive. From kindergarten, they learn Mandarin alongside English and have entire classes taught in the language, including math and science. The district has similar programs for other languages, including a dual language program in Spanish that finishes at Fort Vancouver High School.

The topic of how budget cuts could impact these programs, especially those at Columbia River, has been a prominent talking point in recent Parent-Teacher Association meetings.

“It gives you this foundation early on. One day I noticed, it just clicked for me, in my head I stopped translating it,” Axelrod said. “I definitely want to study it in college. It’s who I am.”

Next year, their senior year, is especially critical to completing the program and receiving an International Baccalaureate certificate they feel will be critical to their college applications.

“The summer is the prime time for starting college applications. If I don’t know that I can put Mandarin on my list of classes, that’s scary,” Axelrod said. “This could affect my whole diploma.”

Even if the program is not lost next year, the students said they are concerned about their cohort’s ability to finish the program without Tian’s expertise.

“I’ve grown so close to Ms. Tian. It was so shocking to all of us when she gave us the news. I think student-teacher connections are incredibly important, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better connection,” Gerianos said.

Final steps in reductions

Several lottery and choice programs throughout Vancouver — and in other districts, too — are experiencing similar uncertainties as the district evaluates what’s possible for next year amid the millions in budget reductions.

Vancouver Superintendent Jeff Snell said in a statement Wednesday that despite the stress of uncertainty, the evaluations need to be done slowly to minimize harm.

“This process is something we can’t rush. We need to do it right, and we need to be thoughtful about our next steps forward,” Snell said. “There are a lot of factors we must consider surrounding each decision, and we are working hard to do our due diligence to make the most informed and thoughtful decisions during this difficult and challenging time.”

In recent weeks, the district has been working on notifying staff who may be “bumped” — meaning they may be asked to transfer to a different school building or position as the district reevaluates its needs at each location.

“It’s essentially reassigning individuals,” said Vancouver Education Association President Jamie Anderson, who has played a key role in the district’s reduction-in-force process. “So, if there’s too many math teachers at one building, they could move them to another school.”

Students, however, play a minimal role in the decisions. Gerianos said she wishes they could have greater access to information about what’s going on.

“Without us taking an interest and asking questions, we feel like no information is being provided,” she said. “I think we’re left in the dark a lot of the time. We want to know about the active solutions they’re looking into.”

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Anderson said Vancouver has until May 15 to issue any nonrenewal notices to staff.

However, the district does not yet have a timeline for when schedules and class offerings will be finalized for the 2024-2025 school year. Roberts said the process often leads up to and even through the first week of the fall semester, as the district needs to gauge enrollment levels and student interest.

“In the last couple of years, even if we’ve had only 12 high school students select a class, we usually have still offered that class,” Roberts said. “With these reductions in staffing, we don’t have that option moving forward. We may need to combine some classes or find other creative solutions for class offerings, and we are working through this process right now.”

To Gerianos, her teacher’s influence has gone beyond the classroom. While budget reductions may be necessary, it’s a hard pill to swallow.

“I want to see Ms. Tian when I walk across that stage at graduation,” Gerianos said.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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