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National CrossTalk Spring 2000
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The City Colleges of Chicago
"Last Chance U" is also the college of first choice for many citizens of Chicago

By Kathy Witkowsky

Chicago, Illinois

  Mariam Akbarshani takes notes in a Humanities class at Chicago's Harry S. Truman College, where students from 110 different countries are enrolled.
  Mariam Akbarshani takes notes in a Humanities class at Chicago's Harry S. Truman College, where students from 110 different countries are enrolled.
IMAGINE WALKING into a classroom filled with two dozen students from 15 different countries, several different races and religions, ranging in age from early twenties to senior citizens.

Imagine further that most of them can't write very well-at least not in English. What's more, most of them work at least part-time. Many of them are parents. Most of them are poor. A couple probably have dropped out of a four-year school or transferred from another community college or technical school, while a couple others may already have earned an advanced degree -- though not necessarily from an English-speaking institution.

Now imagine that your job is to teach them a college-level humanities course.

That's the challenge that greets Jeffrey Gibson, an adjunct instructor at Harry S. Truman Community College, twice a week. Located in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, a racially and ethnically mixed area near Lake Michigan, Truman boasts the most diverse -- and poorest -- student body of the seven City Colleges of Chicago, with students from 110 different countries who speak 58 different languages.

Like the neighborhood, the school is a gateway for immigrants, but it also plays a key role for the city's minorities: 13 percent of the students are black (half of them are African American, half are from other countries); 44 percent are Hispanic; 13 percent are Asian. Nearly three-quarters of the students have incomes below the federal poverty level. Then again, about 18 percent have attended a four-year institution, and some of them already have degrees.

Yet during a recent Humanities 201 class, the Oxford-educated theologian seemed unfazed by the task ahead of him. "Today," Gibson announced in his clipped British accent, as he paced around the classroom, "we're actually going to attempt to do philosophy!"

Then Gibson made a brave move, considering the class makeup: one Kosovo Albanian, one Bosnian, a young Islamic woman dressed in traditional head-covering and skirt, several devout African American Baptists, others from Vietnam, Russia, Turkey, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Ukraine, Nigeria, Yugoslavia, China, Liberia, Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan -- many of them places that had suffered massive destruction and death as a result of religious and ethnic wars, in some cases between one another.

  Instructor Louise Fredman teaches English as a Second Language to recently arrived immigrants. Truman Community College students speak 58 different languages.
  Instructor Louise Fredman teaches English as a Second Language to recently arrived immigrants. Truman Community College students speak 58 different languages.
Nonetheless, Gibson plunged ahead. "Does God exist?" he asked them. All but two of the students raised their hands to indicate yes. But when Gibson pressed them on the details -- Is God omnipresent? Does God have a gender? Does God have emotions? If God is all-knowing, then why did he create evil? -- they weren't nearly so clear about their beliefs.

Reeling off references and citations from Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, the Bible and the Koran, as well as historical information about various religions, with a few jokes thrown in for good measure, Gibson pointed out that many of the students' beliefs came from later writings and interpretations. He taught them terms: omnipotent, omniscient, theist, deist and henotheist. At the end of the hour-and-twenty-minute class, he summed up his point: "To simply say God exists or doesn't is rather naive." To argue the existence of God, he said, you have to consider all of the questions he had introduced.

That was a new concept for Nazni Bangai, a 20-year-old Sikh Indian American studying computer programming. Nazni was too shy to contribute to the class discussion, because she said most people had never heard of the Sikh religion. But after class she acknowledged she never had thought about those questions, and said she planned to discuss them with her mother that night.

That's the kind of thing Jeffrey Gibson likes to hear. He knows that few of his students actually will graduate from Truman, but he considers himself successful if he sees his students engaged in a discussion after class, or if they take the time to ask him questions. Last year, fewer than ten percent of the school's 2,756 students who were enrolled in the college credit program earned associate degrees; another 459 earned one-year certificates.

The statistics generated by all seven of the City Colleges of Chicago appear even more dismal: of 48,684 students enrolled in credit programs, only 1,931 -- less than five percent -- earned two- year degrees last year; 1,041 others completed a one-year advanced certificate. During the previous fall, only 2,082 former City Colleges students -- also less than five percent of the district's total credit enrollment -- transferred to four-year schools in Illinois. The district does not keep figures on students who transfer out of state.

Related information  
A Day in the Life
City Colleges of Chicago student strives to better herself
The experience of the Chicago city colleges is not much different from that of urban two-year colleges across the country. Critics point to paltry graduation and transfer rates as proof that these systems are broken and need a serious overhaul.

"We call it ‘pretend college,'" said Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University. In the late 1980s and early '90s, Orfield wrote several comprehensive studies of the City Colleges of Chicago. All were highly critical of the system, and one was so negative that the agency that commissioned it never published the report. "It can actually harm people by taking years of their lives and...not giving them anything that increases their marketability or ways to improve their lives," Orfield said in an interview.

"The Revolving Door: City Colleges of Chicago 1980-89," a 1991 study that Orfield oversaw, estimated that fewer than ten percent of City Colleges students in college credit programs finished either a one-year advanced certification or a two-year degree. Nationally, among the 1,132 community colleges, the rate of completion is 22 percent at their first institution; a total of 37 percent at any institution. The Orfield study also estimated that only two percent of City Colleges students enrolled in transfer programs would earn a bachelor's degree six years later. Nationally, 22 percent of 1989-90 community college students transferred to four-year institutions within five years.

"It's the best-kept dirty little secret there is," said Jack Wuest, executive director of Alternative Schools Network, a non-profit educational and advocacy organization. "I think community colleges don't really have to hide (the graduation rates), because nobody really asks. And if they did, I think they'd be appalled." Wuest, Orfield and others say a degree is the best measurement of success because of the strong link between educational achievement and increased earnings.

But defenders of the City Colleges of Chicago cry foul. Given the system's multi-faceted mission, as well as its "woefully uneducated" student body, as one administrator described it, it is unfair -- and elitist -- to measure the system's success by graduation rates alone, they say.

City Colleges Chancellor Wayne Watson actually laughed at the mention of Orfield's name. "He would always come up with some theoretical research," Watson said by way of dismissing the former University of Chicago professor. "It had no contact with reality."

The reality, Watson said, is that "my students are running a 120-yard race and his students are running 100 yards. We start 20 to 40 yards back from where his students start." Nearly a third of all credit students at the City Colleges have to take one or more remedial classes. The numbers are worse for students coming directly from Chicago public high schools: Their high school diplomas notwithstanding, 90 percent of them can't place into a college-level math class.

"The thing about the City Colleges that has to be remembered is that we do have to serve a greater developmental role than other colleges do," said B.J. Walker, one of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's deputy chiefs of staff. "If you have an emergency room it's kind of like blaming you for people coming in and bleeding to death. Some of its role is to stop people from bleeding to death."

A university's mission is to graduate people, Watson said. But that's only one aspect of the City Colleges of Chicago mission, he said, and therefore not a very accurate measure of its success. "I don't have the luxury of being a university, where my goal is just one thing," said Watson. Besides its so-called "transfer" mission, once its main focus, City Colleges also must provide vocational and occupational training, remedial education (now known as "developmental"), Adult

Basic Skills, and "value-added" education in non-credit courses, he said.

Wandering in and out of the classrooms in the two glass, steel and brick buildings that make up the Truman College campus, you can find a staggering array of subjects being taught. There are the usual English, History and Math -- subjects generally associated with a college. There are also courses designed for students who plan to join the workforce with two-year degrees in nursing, marketing and business.

Then there are the vocational offerings, like a six-month course in Major Home Appliance Repair. On a recent spring day, 14 students, all men, were sitting at their desks surrounded by malfunctioning fridges, washing machines and driers, looking at an overhead projection of an oven circuit. "You've got to rely on voltage measurements, folks," instructor Richard Abrahamson told them. "If you don't force a conclusion with your volt meter, you'll be ordering the customer the wrong part."

  By The Numbers
City Colleges of Chicago
  Number of colleges:
seven (Richard J. Daley; Kennedy-King; Malcolm X; Olive-Harvey; Harry S. Truman; Harold Washington; Wilbur Wright)

Total enrollment (1999 fiscal year): 157,655 (headcount)

College credit enrollment:
48,684 (headcount)

Racial/ethnic mix:
38 percent African American; 30 percent Hispanic; 21 percent white; seven percent Asian; four percent “other”

Operating budget (2000 fiscal year):
$285 million

Tuition, per credit hour:
$47.50 for Chicago residents; $140.36 for Illinois residents who do not live in Chicago; $210.45 for out-of-state and foreign students.
Graduates of this particular program have a nearly 100 percent employment rate, Abrahamson said. "In six months, I'm able to get them a job that can make them good money," he said. After three to five years in the field, his graduates can earn between $30,000 and $50,000 a year. Truman's Technical Center also offers automotive mechanics and cosmetology programs, in both English and Spanish.

But that's not all. Nearly one third of all students in the City Colleges of Chicago -- more than sixty thousand students -- are in the non-credit Adult Learning Skills Program (ALSP), which includes grammar and high school-level classes as well as English as a Second Language.

So, in another classroom, a couple dozen immigrants are learning to say, "My English is not so good." Some of them have only been in the United States a week or two, and they're as fresh and eager as the Robin Williams character in "Moscow on the Hudson."

In yet another, instructor Earl Silbar is explaining how to structure an essay according to General Educational Development (GED) testing standards so his students can pass a high school equivalency exam.

"You have to be sensitive about how you approach things," said Silbar, who has been teaching GED courses for more than 20 years. Twice Silbar has used the police as a topic of classroom conversation, and twice students left his classroom and never came back. Later he found out why: Both had family members who had been shot dead by police. Silbar learned his lesson. Today he uses more non-controversial topics, like "Is it better to be an only child?" to demonstrate how to take and defend a position in an essay.

If it sounds like the school is trying to be all things to all people, you're not far off. Originally designed to provide the first two years of a four-year education, community colleges have in many cases become a refuge for students who can't succeed -- or afford to go -- elsewhere. "What other entity would serve that population?" asked Truman College President Phoebe Helm.

No wonder one administrator referred to the system as "Last Chance U" -- a moniker that Chancellor Watson did not dispute. "That's one of the things we are, is Last Chance U," said Watson, who was appointed in 1998, the system's third chancellor in ten years. But also, he said, "We're the college of first choice for citizens of Chicago, because more students come to us than anywhere else in the city."

Last year, more than 157,000 people were enrolled in classes at City Colleges of Chicago, though only 49,000 of them were taking college credit courses. The system is of crucial importance for minorities: More than half of the state's black and Hispanic community college students are enrolled at the City Colleges.

  Truman College instructor Richard Abrahamson says almost all of the graduates of his home appliance repair class get jobs.
  Truman College instructor Richard Abrahamson says almost all of the graduates of his home appliance repair class get jobs.
The broad mission complicates the colleges' task, and makes it a challenge to measure their success. For instance, a number of students in Jeffrey Gibson's Humanities 201 class are simply "course-takers," uninterested in a degree, according to a questionnaire Gibson handed out at the beginning of the semester. Some want to transfer to a four-year institution. But others indicate their goal is to improve their English. One said he just wanted "to gain knowledge."

"We use the community colleges for ad hoc purposes," noted Clifford Adelman, a senior research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, and an ardent defender of community colleges. "And that reflects the nature of our society."

Adelman said studies now show that 60 percent of undergraduate students attend two or more schools, and that 40 percent of those students cross state lines in the process. Community colleges don't have any way of tracking this highly mobile student population, he said, so judging schools based on institutional data is outmoded. Instead, he said, the only way to acquire accurate information is to follow students through a lifetime of education -- something that community colleges don't have the ability to do.

"I love my students!" enthused Elise Gorun, who has taught at City Colleges since 1971, and currently teaches an African American literature class at Truman. Gorun said she had tremendous respect and admiration for her students, many of whom, she said, are pursuing their education despite tremendous obstacles: financial, family- and health-related.

"Against all the odds -- some of them barely have money in their pocket -- they get up and come here," said Gorun. During her course, she not only introduces her students to a wide range of African American authors through poems and short stories, she also teaches them about African American culture. In March, for instance, she arranged to take her class to an African American exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she offered to hire a guide with her own money. She suspected that many of her students had never been there before.

"I see [the community college] as a gateway, as a place where people have hope," Gorun said.

"Some of my students do very well and will get their degrees. And some will not. But whatever length of time they're here is meaningful for them."

During a recent classroom poetry exercise, Gorun instructed her students to complete the sentence, "I am…" Wrote one young African American man, "I am the beholder of expectations and family dreams."

Harvard professor Orfield said one of the saddest things about the system is the way it deceives its students into thinking they're more prepared than they really are. "All these kids think they're going to get four-year degrees and graduate degrees and have a great life," he said. "People have aspirations that they have no background for. People want to be scientists who haven't taken geometry." Thus the so-called "cooling off" theory, he said, which posits that community colleges' role is to cool, or reduce, aspirations rather than raise them.

Faculty have their own ways of dealing with the issue, measuring success in small ways. "I've had students come in who didn't know how to use an index at the back of a book or find a book using a call number," said Truman College librarian Leone McDermott. "And so I show them how to do that. That may not be college-level work, but they leave knowing more than they did when they walked in.

"Someone once described this as a glorified high school," continued McDermott. "And I think that's probably right. But if we weren't here, what would happen with all these people? It's not like there's anyplace else in the system they can go."

A 1999 survey of the previous year's graduates indicated that nearly half of them were pursuing their education; in addition, 90 percent were employed either full- or part-time, earning an average of $12.32 an hour -- equivalent to about $25,500 a year. President Helm suggested that the measure of City Colleges' success should not be limited to graduates. Instead, experts should look at a wage database of all so-called "leavers," that is, anyone who's taken classes at the colleges.

No such database exists, but Helm is convinced that it would show a strong correlation between increased wages and amount of education -- even if the person never graduated. For instance, she said, "If I get into a taxicab and ask where the driver learned English, nine times out of ten they learned it here." That's an example of how the system improves people's lives in a very real way, she said. But the colleges don't get credit for it because the students aren't counted as graduates.

There are success stories at the City Colleges of Chicago. One of them is Truman College alumnus Steven Luong, who graduated from Truman in 1997, and now earns $40,000 per year as a computer programmer.

In 1989, Luong immigrated to Chicago with his parents and four of his five siblings from their native Vietnam. The family was so poor that they didn't even have the $14 bus fare they needed to get to the public aid office. For years, all seven of them lived in a three-room apartment in Chicago's tough, multiethnic Uptown neighborhood in the city's Northside. But his father was determined that the family should get an education, and soon they all were enrolled in classes at nearby Truman College.

Luong offered high praise for Truman College. "I am very proud to be a student at Truman," he said, in his heavily accented, but precise, present-tense English. "That's why I'm a success," he said. "As long as you know how to work hard, study hard, that's why I have what I've got today." Luong and his wife, also a computer programmer, were the youngest couple on their block when they purchased their home in the neat, middle-class Chicago neighborhood of Mayfair, a few miles west of Uptown.

But not every student has the drive and determination, nor the family support, of a Steven Luong. Critics of the system say it has to do better for all students.

  Tina Frankovich takes a painting class at Truman College, one of the school's popular non-credit courses.
  Tina Frankovich takes a painting class at Truman College, one of the school's popular non-credit courses.
The problem, said Harvard's Orfield, is a lack of accountability. Because the City Colleges are funded based on enrollment, not graduation rates, there's no incentive to improve them, he said. "Everybody can collect their money, and keep their jobs, the students can come in and go out, and everybody can feel they're doing something about education," he said. "Students can vanish without anyone knowing what happens to them."

Privately, others agree that the system needs a serious overhaul, but are afraid to alienate the current leadership with any public criticism. The City Colleges administrators have earned a reputation for being extremely defensive, described by various people familiar with them as "paranoid," with a "fortress mentality."

"Access to the system has been cut off in the past when outside groups and individuals have criticized it," said one advocate of reform, explaining the reluctance to be quoted. "Criticism of the system is interpreted as an attack. And that makes discussion and debate very difficult."

But some critics have high hopes that the City Colleges are on the brink of change. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley has focused heavily on his highly touted elementary and secondary school reform, and at least some education watchdogs feel that he is poised to focus now on changes needed at the City Colleges.

"Historically, there has not been a big connection between City Hall and the City Colleges," acknowledged B.J. Walker, mayoral aide. But Walker, who has a daughter attending Truman College, added, "Once you decide that education K-12 is important to you as a mayor, you decide the whole spectrum is.

"In order to have a viable city these days…you've got to have a workforce [that companies] can tap into that has the skills they need," Walker said. "And in order to have that workforce and therefore to support economic development in the city, you have to go back to the beginning and develop the workforce."

During his two years as chancellor, Wayne Watson has implemented several changes. For instance, students can't earn graduation credits if they earn less than a C grade in general education or core classes. The colleges also are participating in a statewide articulation initiative aimed at facilitating transfer from two-year schools to four-year institutions. So far, 51 articulation agreements have been signed.

An ambitious K-16 initiative seeks to devise a seamless curriculum to ease transitions from Chicago public schools to City Colleges, and from City Colleges on to four-year institutions. As part of that initiative, faculty are working on exit standards and curricula that are in sync with four-year schools.

The City Colleges also are working to heighten their profile in the Chicago public schools. A program called Project Excel, for example, allows public high school students to enroll in City Colleges vocational courses while still in high school, while the College Bridge Program allows qualified high school juniors and seniors to earn college credit in general education courses. So far, those programs are relatively small, with 825 and 54 students, respectively, enrolled in the 1998–99 school year.

Watson boasted that he has "far exceeded" his goals for his first two years, but reform advocates say Watson must go much further. Anne Ladkey, executive director of Women Employed, a non-profit organization that works to advance women's economic status, said,

"What we would like to see is that employers in Chicago feel that they can rely on the City

Colleges as a supplier of skilled workers. I don't think that's a widespread perception."

  Truman College President Phoebe Helm defends the Chicago City Colleges against criticism that too few students graduate or transfer to four-year schools.
Ladkey thinks that the adult learning skills programs should be better integrated with workforce preparation. And she said that the schools need to better integrate their transfer, vocational and basic educational missions.

Chancellor Watson has his own ambitious set of goals. He wants to increase academic standards; increase the number of students who enter the workforce from the vocational program; increase the number of students who pass the GED, or high school equivalency exam (In fiscal year 1999, 1,771 of 4,435 GED students passed); and he wants to double the amount of customized training the schools do (This year, City Colleges trained between 12,000 and 14,000 people for 144 companies). Watson was not specific about how he planned to achieve these goals.

Meanwhile, the City Colleges face another problem: declining enrollments. Credit courses are an important source of revenue for each of the colleges, which keep the tuition they generate. But enrollment in credit courses has declined from 66,948 in 1985 to 48,684 in 1999. (Total enrollment also declined during the same period, from 209,016 to 157,655.)

Administrators suspect that the enrollment decline is due in part to the strong economy, which keeps potential students employed and removes incentives to go to school. Charles Guengerich, president of Wilbur Wright College on Chicago's northwest side, also speculated that the decrease in enrollment is an indication that the City Colleges haven't done enough to market themselves.

"We have to be more aggressive in our communities, reaching out saying, ‘This is the value we bring to this community,'" said Guengerich, who noted that several private institutions in the Chicago area have started to lure students with expensive radio and television advertising campaigns. During his recent State of the College speech, Guengerich implored faculty to help recruit potential students, especially from area high schools.

But that's not going to be easy. "City Colleges has not enjoyed such a wonderful reputation," noted Elena Mulcahy, who is in charge of Truman College's high school-college partnership program, an attempt to convince more Chicago Public High School graduates to matriculate at City Colleges. "The best kids are going to be encouraged to go somewhere else."

That might be one point on which both critics and defenders of the system could agree: The City Colleges play a different role than, say, the University of Illinois, the state's flagship research university, or a prestigious private school like Northwestern University.

"If you don't buy into the mission of a community college, and your only framework is a regular university, then it isn't going to fit," said Truman College President Phoebe Helm. "If you buy into the mission and then measure performance in relation to that mission, then you find we're doing a superb job."

Freelance writer Kathy Witkowsky lives in Missoula, Montana.

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