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Community Colleges Fear Loss of Funds for Support Program

Education: Students trying to get off welfare are given assistance from CalWORKs.

March 05, 2002|JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When caring for her two young sons and her 90-year-old grandmother make Laketha Moore feel as if her body will give out, when finals roll around and she feels overwhelmed, there's an office at her college that helps her manage it all.

The counselors who staff the bungalow office at Los Angeles Southwest College are there to make sure students such as Moore have the support they need to stay in school, find a stable job and ultimately end their dependence on welfare.

The program, called Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (or CalWORKs), was created in 1997 to ensure that welfare did not become a permanent crutch.

However, budget cuts proposed by Gov. Gray Davis that would reduce funding for the program from $65 million to $7 million make community colleges statewide wonder if they will be able to maintain it. "CalWORKs is supposed to be my steppingstone," Moore, 24, said. "My steppingstone is going to be pulled out from under my feet, and I'm going to fall hard."

Under CalWORKs rules, applicants can remain on aid for up to five years, but must meanwhile take a job anywhere they can get one or enroll in vocational training.

Many students, like Moore, opt to attend a training program at one of the state's 108 community colleges.

Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for the governor, said the cut was made because the services community colleges provide can be funded through other sources--for example, by individual colleges. Some college officials say that would be next to impossible.

"We're a struggling college--the college couldn't pick up those services," said Audre Levy, president of Southwest, where about 40% of students participate in CalWORKs.

Moore knows that if the office didn't exist, she'd likely drop out of school and be forced to take a minimum-wage job to support her children, Anthony, 8, and Antwoine, 4.

Students such as Moore would still be able to take classes, as tuition at community colleges is about $11 per unit. And child care, which weighs heavily on parents' ability to attend school, would remain in the governor's budget at $15 million.

But students and CalWORKs providers are afraid that without the services of a central office with familiar and reliable staff to offer support, many students would quit school.

Among other things, the office offers personal and academic counseling, links students to work-study jobs and helps them navigate the bureaucratic world of welfare.

Students visit the offices several times a day with basic needs: money for lunch or books, transportation, parenting advice or even a pep talk.

The CalWORKs staff at Santa Monica College helped Tanya Powell, a single mother of four young boys, find an affordable used minivan. Now, she doesn't have to wake up at 4 a.m. to take her children to school and get to her own classes.

"They take our problems home with them and figure out how to help us," Powell said of the CalWORKs staff.

McLean said one way to keep the CalWORKs services would be to have counties pay for them to be maintained on college campuses. But Patrick Lenz, executive vice chancellor for the California Community Colleges, and others are worried that some counties would focus solely on job placement.

"That may preclude current CalWORKs students from continuing their education, leaving them to take whatever job is available," he said.

Tracey Ellis, project manager of the CalWORKs program at Santa Monica College, is skeptical that Los Angeles County would be able to cover the costs and provide the personal attention CalWORKs students need.

"It's just not a supportive environment where you can go in to get help," Ellis said.

Otto Solorzano, chief financial officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services, said cutting state funding for CalWORKs would require curtailing other county programs.

"The county doesn't have the funding to cover the need," Solorzano said. "It just doesn't seem possible to me."

Moore, too, hopes the governor will reconsider when he does his final budget review in May. She came to college with a "bad attitude," wanting only to get her vocational certificate and leave. But CalWORKs staff members told her she had potential, something she never heard growing up.

"If this office didn't exist, the first semester I would have been gone," she said. "I just need this door to stay open--just for a little while."

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