Slow results as community college revamp completes second year

L.A. Southwest College student Cheryl Watson has used new tutoring resources to finish her studies.
L.A. Southwest College student Cheryl Watson has used new tutoring resources to finish her studies.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

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Two years ago, the 2 million-student California Community College kicked off a system-wide Student Success Initiative to help turn around a high dropout rate among students.

The initiative was the result of a 2012 report issued by the Student Success Task Force that found that 75 percent students trying to get their community college degree failed to do so.

“It was very troubling,” said task force member Nancy Shulock. “The community colleges are so important to this state but they weren’t getting the attention, the funding, the support, the recognition, the understanding that the more high profile university systems were getting.”

Also, the massive education funding cuts that began in 2008 were leaving students without crucial guidance and tutoring to help them finish their studies.

This year, Sacramento sent the 112-campus system $251 million in additional funding for the Student Success Initiative. Campuses are using the money to create summer orientation classes and programs for students to help students choose a major and map out their classes.

Los Angeles Southwest College, in South L.A., is receiving about $1.25 million in additional funding for the initiative that it’s using to hire tutors and staff.

A lot of the student support happens in the 60-computer, multiroom Student Success Center.

“We have students from every discipline on campus that come and work in here," center director Sabrena Turner-Odom said. “We have tutoring also available in English. We have all of the sciences, all of our multiple levels of math, accounting, statistics."

Not once does she call them “community college students.” They’re college students and that’s the goal of the statewide initiative: to treat students as if they’re in a university by requiring them to declare a major, deciding what classes to take, and testing their strengths and weaknesses.

“I couldn’t do it alone,” said Sally Chapman, who’s been taking classes at Southwest for four years. "If it wasn’t for some of the tutors, I don’t know where I would be."

Chapman failed math before getting help at the Student Success Center.

“I thought I could do it on my own," she said. "I got a tutor and I passed Math 115 with an A, Math 125 with an A.”

Statewide college administrators want to see more students like Chapman. She’s graduating this spring with an associate’s degree in psychology and hopes to transfer to USC.

Administrators here say if the Student Success Initiative is to bear fruit they need to better prepare students in the surrounding high schools on what to expect in college. Many high school graduates enroll in community college needing remedial help in English and math.

David Watties, who graduated from Compton High School last year, said he needs help with study habits.

“I listen to music most of the time. I work out. I cannot lie, as an honest student I get lazy most of the time. I’m a last minute student but I always manage to get the work done when I have to,” he said.

The success of the success initiative is public record through an online “scorecard” for each college and for the state.

Statewide, 48 percent of students are finishing community college within six years. That rate hasn’t changed in the past two years despite the new program. But state officials are quick to point out that completion rates for individual classes is up.

California Community College officials answer that it’s still too early to assess whether the initiative is working.

“In this case we see a legislature and a governor that are now in the third year of funding this,” system Chancellor Brice Harris said, “and if we could see two or three more years, I think we’d really be able to see the payoff.”

Governor Jerry Brown’s proposing $200 million for the Student Success Initiative for next fiscal year, that would be on top of the $251 million community colleges received this year.

The goal is to open the door to jobs and careers for community college students in the way that the state’s two public university systems do. Southwest College student Cheryl Watson said this campus has done that for her.

“I’m 59 years old, so never would I have attended college had I not lost my job in 2008," Watson said. "I was a secretary for over 28 years. It was a meaningless job, though, so I’ve found purpose for my life here."

Her plan for success is to transfer to Cal State Northridge and earn her bachelor’s degree in hospitality management.