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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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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."


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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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