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Mission Improbable: City College May Soon Close. And If It Doesn't, It May Never Be the Same. 

Tuesday, Dec 9 2014
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Football players clad in black hurl themselves into football players wearing white. "You call that hittin' somebody?" the black-clad quarterback shouts as he picks himself up after a tackle. It's the last Saturday in November, and the City College of San Francisco's Rams, in black, and American River College, in white, square off for the Northern California football championship. The Rams' only loss this season was from American River College, in September. Today they vow redemption. But the Rams have more on the line than just one game, or one championship.

Coach George Rush puts it this way: His team represents a cross section of society, prep school graduates of Saint Ignatius College Preparatory to low-income students from the city's public schools. They all depend on City College of San Francisco to give them a shot at not just a football championship, but middle-class life.

"It's not about who your family is. You step out onto that field and it's about you, and the team, and that moment," Rush says.

But, as it grapples with how it offers classes and who gets to take them, City College as a whole is trying to figure out just who its family is, and who the school is really for.

Last June, the 79-year-old community college's accreditors made moves to revoke its degree accreditation, a move that could soon force the school to close. City Attorney Dennis Herrera quickly swooped in, filing suit against the Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges. The ACCJC's evaluation of the school was unfair, he said, as the commission had a political ax to grind against City College.

The commission wrote letters and drummed up support for the Student Success Initiative, a statewide effort to focus resources on community college students intending to transfer to four-year universities. City College in turn defended its lifelong students, its immigrants, its jobless adults, and others who don't fit so neatly into the college narrative, but who still need an education.

In his suit, Herrera alleges that City College is the guinea pig in the commission's local push for reform. (San Francisco Superior Court's Judge Curtis Karnow heard closing arguments on Dec. 9. There is no formal date on when he'll announce his decision.)

There is hope it will not close. But a trial win by Herrera would only mean the commission gets to accredit City College again; issues of funding and student access will remain.

Advocates say the college is at a crossroads, not only in the trial, but in deciding just who it's supposed to serve. Coach Rush's players are among myriad San Franciscans who find new purpose at City College, becoming nurses, aeronautical engineers, firefighters, citizens, biotechnicians, and child care practitioners. Every year that City College produces these graduates, it bolsters the city's economy to the tune of $300 million, according to the city's Budget & Legislative Analyst. They're the workers who make the Bay Area go.

Even if City College wins a reprieve, the commission may reshape the college into something unrecognizable. California has long enshrined into law who is entitled to a community college education in the state: everyone. Open access itself is now on trial, as the college and the commission fight over how to best use dwindling state funds.

And, as the trial winds down, some City College students may be left behind to give others a leg up.

At that trial, City College's survival came down to the value of one of two numbers: 92 or 56.

It's Thursday, Oct. 30, the fourth of five days of testimony to decide the school's fate. Deputy City Attorney Ronald Flynn cross-examined Steve Kinsella, one of the ACCJC commissioners who voted for closure. In San Francisco's Superior Court, more than 200 eyes from the City College community faced their executioner.

"In my view it all ends up on the financial statement," Kinsella said on the witness stand. He said one number was unsustainable: 92, the percentage of City College's budget going to employee salaries and benefits. The growing debt incurred by benefits and salaries the college owed was a problem, Kinsella said. And instead of correcting the alleged deficiency, "They were not acting."

City College was mired in debt. But, Flynn retorted, the problem did not start with the school: California was late in paying money it owed to many government entities, forcing City College to borrow money from the city of San Francisco to pay its debts on time.

He also reminded Kinsella of the Bay Area's skyrocketing cost of living.

But by depending on a bailout from San Francisco, the college is "a liability to others," Kinsella replied. Bad bookkeeping, in the end, was key to his vote to shutter the school. Throughout the trial, many of his fellow commissioners echoed this reasoning.

Flynn in turn argued that the commission's standards do not specify what percentage of a college's budget should go to salaries and benefits, and that the commission, in calculating this alleged bad budget, didn't factor in millions of dollars in new funding because it came after key accreditation review dates. That omission allegedly gave an inaccurate picture of the school's financial situation.

Days before Kinsella testified, California Community College Chancellor Brice Harris sat in the wood-paneled witness stand. He was concerned with a different number: 56, the percentage of students City College awards degrees to, or transfers to four-year colleges annually.

This is 8 percent higher than the average for the state's 112 community colleges. On the witness stand, commission President Barbara Beno said graduation rates do not carry weight in accreditation decisions.

92 versus 56. Bad budgets versus high graduation rates. The two figures draw an ideological line in the sand.

David Bergeron says the problem stems from what's deemed important: National accreditors focus only on how things are done in a college, and not on how successfully they produce educated graduates.

Bergeron's job is to take the bird's-eye view. He formerly served in the U.S. Department of Education and is now a fellow with the national think tank Center for American Progress.

The day is Dec. 5. Just moments before Bergeron picked up the phone to speak to SF Weekly, he and hundreds of education leaders attended a White House summit on higher education. He sat 20 feet from President Obama, who addressed the crowd.

"We're going to have to make sure that more students can make it all the way across the graduation stage, not with debt that might limit their choices, but with the skills that will prepare them for the workforce," the president said. "That is going to be critical."

But that progress has a barrier, Bergeron says, leading to "high tension" among education leaders.

That barrier is exemplified in the disconnect between what accreditors measure and what makes a school valuable. City College's finances, curriculum standards, and the number of administrators were all out of whack, the commission said. But accreditors do not generally look at what students get out of college, what experts call student outcomes: their graduation rates, job placement, loan debts, and the speed at which graduates repay that debt.

The danger of this disconnect shows up with for-profit colleges. Most (but not all) for-profits are known nationally to have sub-par job placement rates, and to saddle their students with debt. But accreditors rate them highly, mostly, because for-profits pay the bills on time, and keep the lights on.

Much of City College's main campus, by contrast, is aging and decrepit. It's finances are all over the place. But its students succeed.

To Bergeron, the accreditors behave like a perverse FDA: rating food based on how efficiently it is packaged, but not on how healthy it is to eat. Incorporating graduation rates into accreditation would be a start, he says, but so would job-placement rates.

This can be difficult to measure in community colleges, Bergeron says, because they are "open access." If a person takes one Photoshop class, and with those skills earns a promotion in his advertising firm, how could a college possibly know that? The way the numbers are counted now, that student, by not taking classes next semester, would be considered a dropout. City College would never know he was given a promotion at work.

Accreditors don't focus on results, Bergeron says, "because they're hard to measure." Many of City College's best efforts fall into this category: good for students, but hard to quantify.

Ivy Gao holds her swollen belly with one hand and her energetic son Sampson with the other. He's 3 years old and grabs at anything set down in front of him while smiling maniacally. The rambunctious brother and his yet-to-be-born sister have something in common, already: They both need health care.

And that's not cheap to come by.

"My husband is the only breadwinner," Gao, 39, says in Cantonese. A staffer at the Chinese Progressive Association translates for us, as the sounds of students singing Cantonesekaraoke in the next room drift in. "His father," she says as she pats Sampson's head, "works at a restaurant."

Despite his efforts, the family's health care premiums are high, and they need another income. So Gao enrolled in City College's Hospitality Vocational Training Program. There the students, mostly new immigrants, spend seven months studying workplace English, practice mock interviews, and learn how to apply for jobs. They visit San Francisco hotels and learn about workers' rights.

The career is a gateway to affordable health care.

"We live in an SRO [in Chinatown]," she says, referring to a Single Room Occupancy hotel. "Working in a hotel is a dream job for a lot of people."

City College's glimmering new high-rise, the Chinatown campus, is a short walk from her home. College data shows more than 15,000 Asian students are enrolled in its noncredit division, composed of mostly English-as-Second-Language, citizenship-test training, and vocational courses.

These classes help new immigrants learn English and have a chance at working-class life in San Francisco. Education helps newcomers help themselves, and rely less on government aid to live, as well.

But City College is now becoming a less open place for the Ivys of San Francisco.

"The accreditation attack has changed [City College's] policies," Emily Lee, a lead organizer at the CPA says. "And it impacts low-income students the most."

While poor students are affected the most by the changes in City College's policies, all students are impacted.

After the ACCJC found the college's finances in "disarray," City College shuttered instructional sites citywide (mini campuses which directly serve tight-knit San Francisco communities), and may soon close campuses serving the Bayview, Fort Mason, the Tenderloin, and downtown.

City College also began more strictly collecting its overdue fees. Students with an unpaid bill can no longer register for new classes. Lee says this practice disenfranchises the poor.

The college also cut classes this semester in the name of savings, writes Frederick Teti, Academic Senate president at City College, in an email to SF Weekly. Cutting course offerings drives away students (and the funding they provide) in the long term, he says. The college had more than 100,000 students enrolled in the late 2000s, a number that has since shrunk to 75,000.

"Administration was quite merciless," Teti writes: Students fresh out of high school are seeing the classes they need cut even as classes older adults tend to take are also cut.

And most telling, the college's Mission Statement, a document that determines its spending priorities, was changed at the behest of the commission's sanctions to omit life-long learners (read: old people).

The Mission Statement is also akin to a Bill of Rights for a community college, a document that speaks to its values.

Some City College supporters don't see the changes as minimizing the school's mission. "[People] assume this narrative is about something more romantic than it really is," says Steve Ngo, a long-time City College trustee. "[Class cuts] are not about substantial change," he says, "but asking us to maximize our talent to serve our students."

He's partly right: On paper, the commission didn't ask for City College to cut anyone out. It simply said the college spends too much money on too many myriad programs. But those myriad programs produce successes that are difficult to measure.

City College long ago recognized this, and became one of the few colleges statewide to focus its mission on intangibles — intangibles it has long believed help San Francisco.

Madeline Mueller was not allowed to wear pants when she started teaching music at City College. Skirts and heels were the rule of the day. The year was 1965.

The one similarity to the modern era the classically trained pianist points to is the ethnicity of her students. From the beginning, they were "international," she says, "mostly Asian. It was like calling roll at the United Nations!"

Her students back then mostly intended to transfer to a four-year school, a newfangled idea started five years earlier, in 1960. State legislators and academic administrators organized the state's chaotic collection of colleges into a system to meet the needs of the surging population of college-age Baby Boomers. With the stroke of a pen, Gov. Edmund "Pat" Brown (father to Jerry) signed the Donahoe Act, enshrining a new education blueprint into state law: The California Master Plan for Higher Education.

Colleges were divided into three categories, each with its own mission.

Students in the top 12.5 percent of state K-12 schools would go into the University of California system; the next 33.3 percent would attend the California State Universities, and everyone else would go to the community colleges. The Master Plan established community colleges as the state's safety net, differentiated by a characteristic lacking in the CSU and UC systems: open access.

Young or old, bad grades or good, Californians were guaranteed a seat in a community college classroom.

"Everyone now had the chance to go to college," says Marty Hittelman, math professor and past president of the California Federation of Teachers. Before becoming its loudest political champion, he benefitted from the safety net as a student.

"I started out at UC Berkeley and flunked after two years," he says. But L.A. City College took him in. He graduated and later earned his Ph.D. and master's degrees. This pathway of failure and redemption was baked into the Master Plan. A decade would pass before older adults like Gao could easily attend City College.

Before 1970, City College was formally an arm of the public K-14 San Francisco Unified School District. Adult education vocational courses were the district's domain, and transfer classes to UCs and CSUs were the responsibility of City College.

But, according to the school's self-published digital book, Short History of City College, City College's mission would soon expand.

It was the late 1960s, and a debate raged inside the college to go independent and offer expanded adult classes, the book says, "as a result of significant demographic shifts — 'Senior Citizens,' individuals wanting quick skill upgrades, and ethnic groups... desperately in need of English as a Second Language classes."

So on July 1, 1970, the San Francisco Community College District was formed. This organization expanded on the number of adult classes offered by the SFUSD by expanding the size of the college. Classes required in order to transfer to UC and CSU are now mainly under the college's "credit" umbrella; trades and English-as-Second-Language classes are offered as "noncredit" classes.

This makes City College unique among the state's 112 community colleges, which focuses on students fresh out of high school, and, per the Master Plan, sends them off to the UC and CSU schools. But though these schools have a smattering of vocational courses, only City College (and San Diego City College) has this extreme emphasis on a dual mission: Half of the school is devoted to transfers, the other half to vocational classes, English-as-Second-Language, and adult education.

So though 40,000 or so of City College's credit students are part of this plan in the commission's eyes, the other 30,000-plus noncredit students are anomalies in the system. The commission sees those noncredit courses (and even credit courses scheduled to help older adults) as an unnecessary appendage.

Carl Irons was one of many in love with San Francisco at a time when the city had love to spare: 1968. The sexual revolution drew him in.

But, as Irons put it, he started drifting further and further from the traditional way he was raised. "It wasn't until the shooting happened that I realized how far I'd gotten away from what I believed in."

In 1984, Irons and another man were renting rooms from a San Francisco couple, when the couple accused Irons' roommate of stealing. Court documents tell the grisly tale: Irons confronted his roommate, and in the aftermath shot him 12 times, stabbed him twice, and dropped him into the bay.

The body washed ashore the next day.

Ten days later, officers moved to arrest Irons' landlords. Irons turned himself in. He was found guilty of second-degree murder, and spent more than two decades in prison.

Time and solitude do many things to a person.

It's telling that in his 2002 probation hearing, the prosecuting attorney who put him away in the first place, Stephen M. Wagstaffe, said that if Irons were to be released in his neighborhood, "my view to you would be that I'm going to have a good neighbor."

Irons was released in 2009, and one of his first stops was City College.

City College's Second Chance program, for the formerly incarcerated, provided him an opportunity. Unique in the country when it began in 1981, Second Chance's counselors helped Irons register for classes and navigate the strange new world outside of prison.

"Ray Fong, this academic counselor, I jokingly refer to him as my dad," Irons says. "He would always make time to say hello and shake hands.

"People in prison are often treated as less than human. To have someone recognize your humanity," he says, pausing, "it means something."

Irons earned his associate's degree in paralegal studies from City College in 2013, at the age of 64. His degree could help him get a job, but he decided to further his education at San Francisco State University, which he transferred to.

But here is where Bergeron's critique of accreditors rears its head: Irons' graduation did not count in the ultimate tabulation of City College's accreditation. Neither did the touch of humanity Irons reclaimed.

And the Second Chance program itself? If City College were to shutter, it would have to find other schools for two-year students to finish their degrees, but has no special carve-out to continue the Second Chance program elsewhere. In fact, the college's closure report makes no mention of many specialized social safety-net programs — ones that give jobs to immigrant students, or offer classes (and care) to veterans, foster youth, or the homeless.

The accreditors' standards, critics say, are just that: standard. The yardsticks they use measure some value of California's 112 community colleges, but City College long ago diverged from its sister schools.

This makes City College's potential closure particularly more fraught than the closure of another community college system. The city would essentially lose two schools in one swoop: a university-transfer school, and a vocational one with a social mission.

Other community colleges in the area may absorb some of the credit students should City College close, though studies by the state show the schools do not have nearly the capacity to handle all of the students. And those surrounding colleges, Laney, Skyline, or Marin, are far-flung journeys for those who take public transportation.

Ivy Gao, for instance, could not attend college elsewhere: She is not yet a citizen, and has no driver's license. To keep in close proximity to her children, the area around Chinatown is her geographical boundary, for now.

The only other community college that shuttered in recent California history serves as a cautionary tale. When Compton College closed in 2005, the state found thousands of students dropped out of the higher education system entirely. Gone, vanished. When and if they ever went to school again, no one can say.

And as for City College's noncredit students, their only local refuge lay in private for-profit colleges. Entire screeds and lawsuits have been devoted to the questionable value of some of these schools' degrees, but Hittelman puts it succinctly: "Well, if students want huge loans with no reward, sure. That's what you see with these for-profits. Students end up with nothing."

In the commission's closing arguments to Judge Karnow, its attorneys pushed back on the argument that City College is unlike other colleges statewide.

"Over the past year," they wrote in closing trial briefs, "the San Francisco City Attorney has argued City College is not just like other community colleges, and City College should not have to abide by the [same] rules they do."

The City Attorneys, in turn, focused on the misdeeds of the commission — alleged conflicts of interest between the president, Barbara Beno, and her husband, in evaluating City College — and rebutted claims that the school was out of compliance with financial standards.

In these arguments, the commission wrote, "the City Attorney has utterly failed to prove its case."

The City Attorney's Office, not unexpectedly, disagrees.

"All the people seek in this relief is a fair shake for City College," the City Attorney's Office wrote in its closing trial brief. "In the absence of that relief, City College could wind up shuttered — hundreds of thousands of current and prospective students could be denied their only realistic higher education opportunity."

The decision rests now with Judge Karnow. In the meantime, the students of City College, and the people of San Francisco, wait.


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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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