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The face of Beaverton's Welcome Center is changing

More than 5,000 students will be affected next year when the district's English as a Second Language program loses $2.75 million in funding
by: Jaime Valdez, Beaverton School District’s  Welcome Center staff member Chi Huynh, also known as "Mr Chi,” administers a Chinese intake test to Helen Lin, 5, who will be a kindergartner.

Beaverton's Westview High School is a melting pot of languages - 56 different languages to be exact.

Including Westview, more than 5,000 students in the district are involved with English as a Second Language programs, and now, because of budget cuts, some of those students might not get the same help next year.

A $2.75 million reduction in the budget for ESL programs will mean a reduction in staff at the Beaverton School District's Welcome Center, something that has some employees worried.

The Welcome Center, located at 12500 S.W. Allen Boulevard, provides many services and assessments for non-English speakers throughout the school district.

'It's pretty helpful,' said Shahab Farkish, a Westview junior who has taken ESL classes since March. Farkish, whose first language is Persian (also known as Farsi), came to the United States from Iran a year ago, speaking only a little bit of English. 'Now I've improved,' he said.

Both Farkish and fellow classmate Parsa Mojab, a sophomore who also came from Iran, attend the 90-minute ESL classes every other day.

Mojab said he too knew a little English when he arrived. He finds English 'not really hard but not easy at all.'

Facilitators head to schools

Less state funding is the result of having 1,300 students graduate out of English as a Second Language programs based on tests given last year. For Beaverton, the state provides $3,000 in funding for each student who is recognized as an English Language Learner.

As a result of the decrease in funds, the district will move seven Spanish-speaking bilingual facilitators into the schools, a move that administrators believe will benefit everyone. An equal number of staff, who speak a variety of languages including Chinese and Somali, will remain at the Welcome Center, providing such services as oral interpreting and written translations, as well as working with the intake of new students.

Wei Wei Lou, director of the district's English as a Second Language program, said she believes placing the bilingual facilitators in the schools is more efficient because that's where students are anyway.

'I do believe the more resources we put closer to the schools, the better we'll serve the students,' said Lou.

While the budget shortfall doesn't mean any layoffs, Lou said the department will have to trim from areas such as out-of-state travel and other areas.

Still, she said she's relieved that less funding is occurring in the upcoming fiscal year, rather than last year when an $800,000 curriculum adoption purchase was approved.

While fewer funds will have an impact on the program, Lou said she believes changes at the Welcome Center will allow the district to do things better.

Less money is the result of having fewer students because they test out of the program once they reach Level 5 on the English Language Proficiency Assessment, also known as the ELPA.

'Beaverton last year had quite a few students who scored a 5 (on) the ELPA,' said Lou.

Access is an issue

The seven Welcome Center bilingual personnel, known as community liaisons, will be moved to the district's comprehensive middle schools.

'We piloted one community liaison at Five Oaks last year,' Lou pointed out. 'It was very successful.'

However, some Welcome Center employees question the wisdom of downsizing the center.

Darren Battaglia, a teacher on special assignment at the Welcome Center, said the departure of the bilingual facilitators will be felt.

One concern involves access, said Battaglia, who wonders whether parents will be able to get questions answered as fast if the bilingual facilitators are placed in the schools. That's something that could affect those who speak Spanish, he said.

He's also concerned about a request from ESL officials for $400,000 in funding to pay for some outside translations and interpreters, something that could be done in house at the Welcome Center if staff wasn't reduced.

'I guess what we'd like is a realistic plan,' he said.

Some of Battaglia's concerns are shared by Marcela Nieto, one of the bilingual Spanish-speaking facilitators who will move to a middle school next year.

Nieto said she and other employees were surprised to hear about the move, saying her understanding was that everything would remain the same at the Welcome Center. She said she and some of the other staff facilitators have worked together for eight years.

'We work very well here,' said Nieto. 'The team here is great.'

She estimates that 90 percent of those who come to the Welcome Center are Spanish-speaking families.

Nieto said many times the Spanish-speaking facilitators are asked to handle phone calls from various schools when a translator is needed and they travel to various schools to translate.

'We can't go to all the schools we used to,' she said.

Still, Brenda Lewis, a school district regional administrator, said she believes Lou did a good job in identifying areas for cutbacks.

'Her main goal was to hold schools harmless,' said Lewis.

This year, 87 percent of English as a Second Language money went into the schools, with 13 percent benefiting the Welcome Center. Next year, 90 percent will benefit schools with only 10 percent going to the Welcome Center, said Lou

'This is the first year we've had a (funding) reduction this drastic,' she said.

Over the years, the ESL program has grown by leaps and bounds - going from about 500 students a decade ago to more than 5,000 today. However, the district did experience a decline according to figures released in the fall, said Lou.

Currently, the district's top 10 most populated English as a Second Language elementary schools have half-time, bilingual facilitators. High schools have facilitators, or community liaisons, as well.

Spanish is the dominant ESL language spoken in the district, followed by Chinese and Korean.