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2016 August 22 - 02:23 pm

Strange Squeeze: Taking Charge of Change, Staying True to Mission

 As new semesters begin to supplant the old, and as students enroll, I look about me at the sea of options available to them and wonder at their wealth: 

How does one know how or when to dip into which educational opportunity these days, and to what effect? 

When I was in secondary/high school, the lines were fairly clear that separated me and my teen-age cohort from the older college kids. And at that time, oh-so-long ago and far away in the academic administrative mind, the community college was still a fairly new idea; it provided an option that was at once academic and vocational, usually to people who did not or would not have plans to pursue theoretical or academic pursuits, particularly at the typically more expensive university. 

The community college of long ago was an open-door answer to people who needed a new chance. It offered easy entry to the timid or the job-seeking, the burned-out and the curious, the directionless and dismayed as well as the vocationally directed and determined. 

But now, we have community colleges in a strange squeeze, it seems. 

In our community college district, we have one institution that married itself some ten years ago to the local elementary and high school district to form an Early College High School (ECHS), part of this century’s movement to, as California Department of Education documents read, “allow pupils to earn a high school diploma and up to two years of college credit in four years or less...(within) autonomous schools that blend high school and college into a coherent educational program.”

Originally an initiative proposed and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, our local ECHS was to “serve the underserved,” primarily first-generation graduates, locals who would be the first in their families to finish high school and then attend college.  

It was a grand idea, and the hope was that our local school would spawn the success reported in 2009 by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), which held that ECHS graduates were far more likely than were their peers to go on to “regular” universities and then attain BA, BS, and even graduate degrees. Our local ECHS has only 9 teachers, fewer than 250 students, and federally-mandated free lunch for more than half of its attendees, more than 70 percent of whom are of Hispanic origin. In fact, the informational PrepScholar Website reports that most of California’s “homogeneous schools” are largely Hispanic, particularly interesting to me in an area that has the largest population of Vietnamese outside Vietnam, for instance.  

But are the ECHSists really going on to succeed in university? I continue to wonder this, as I see that their SAT scores are typically below those of most other California students, and their “critical reasoning” and interpretation of what they must either read or calculate remain beneath the United States norm.  

Perhaps these ECHSists are looking for one of the other new options for education that fuse the community college into the university? 

Indeed, right in the same city as is our local ECHS, a rather large and prominent community college that is in the same district as is the one that offers co-curricular credit to its ECHSists, is planning to grow into a “full-fledged university” that will offer four-year degrees.  

I have seen this latter trend developing as I read and travel: Florida State Colege at Jacksonville, for instance, has been re-named from Florida Community College at Jacksonville, “as it offers a greater number of four-year bachelor's degrees than traditional two-year colleges.” And, according to an Inside HigherEd report, the number of states permitting institutions that once offered only associate degrees to offer bachelor degrees leapt from 11 to 21 in eight years, as of 2013. Not just Florida, then, but Michigan, Maryland, and Virginia, are among the many that have joined the move. 

But I have two questions, at least, about these trends: 

First, is there some sort of "mission creep" going on here, wherein neither the high school nor the university knows any longer where we as the community college lie, separate and distinct, education-oriented, meeting our students’ demands and needs as they change, and changing with our students more rapidly and readily than can either the behemoths that are our primary-secondary Departments of Education or the Byzantine labyrinths that comprise our state college and university systems? I wonder if our own original mission has dissolved as the respite for the rejected or the curious, the job-seeker or the want-to-make-up-for-the lost. Perhaps we should ask ourselves this, as new semesters begin and economically distressed and academically excited unite at our institutions’ doors.  

Second, I wonder: as I have done for many years, should education be perhaps a continuum of knowledge acquisition rather than a sequence of administratively defined stepping stones? I remember when I was in high school a young man who was brilliant in math, who understood concepts and consequences, who imagined the utility of what was in our textbooks as applicable across disciplines. This same boy had trouble expressing himself in speech or writing; his grammar was terrible, his vocabulary minimal. In my same class was another boy, a sensitive musician, who wrote poetry and whose essays were always well presented, but who had great difficulty in forcing himself to do math in any way. It seemed to me at the time that instead of calling both of these fellows sophomores, as the school did, it might have been better to put the math whiz together with others of his ilk, no matter their age, and to have placed the poet with others of his kind, so that both might progress in their chosen fields. Too, the anti-math artsy fellow could have been grouped with others who shared his math anxiety, together to overcome that anxiety with a teacher who knew how to obliterate obstacles. The communication-challenged boy should have been, I thought, encouraged to read about math and science and then write about that, before being required to analyze the literature laid out in his English books. If schools cared less for age and more for the mind, might this work? Might it lead to a new sort of mission that need not creep?  

We at the community college are, as the League for Innovation continues to state at its website, “the crucible of change,” with change all around us, with stresses and strains pulling us in varying directions, we must take charge of change, decide what our mission is, not allowing others to creep in and making new options for people with varying skills in all fields. 

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