‘Next Level’ set to improve learning experience

By Brian Boyle, Staff Writer

A proclamation from the Contra Costa Community College District’s Chancellor’s Office has made improving the student and faculty experience the main goal of the district and its three colleges over the next five years.

The Chancellor’s Office wants to improve student success toward degree acquisition and transfer rates, energizing faculty and improving the education of under-prepared students as reaching the “Next Level.”

The elimination of developmental education by 2020 is another one of the markers that the colleges have reached the “Next Level.”

Governing Board Trustee for West County John Marquez said, “Diablo Valley College is already at the ‘Next Level,’ and Los Medanos isn’t far off. But Contra Costa College is way behind on meeting its students’ needs.”

The college readiness gap is one of the main focuses of CCC’s five-year plan. A staggering number of high school graduates from West County who come to CCC are underprepared in math and English skills. According to the five-year plan, between summer 2013 and spring 2014, 72.3 percent of new high school graduates entering CCC were assessed into basic skills level English, and 83.7 percent were put in basic skills level math.

At the Sept. 9 Governing Board meeting, the availability of $736 million in bond funding was cited as the reason for the drive toward the “Next Level.”

“I think it is important to think how far we’ve come,” Chancellor Helen Benjamin said. “We want to try some new, innovative things to bring us to the next level, and we finally have the finances available to be able to.”

In a report released by the Chancellor’s Office titled “What the Next Level Looks Like,” it is stated that a decade ago, little districtwide discussion was taking place regarding how race, ethnicity and poverty impact the success of students. The report also states that minimal efforts were being taken to improve student success, and little innovation was taking place.

Speech professor Joseph Carver said he could understand that assessment by the Chancellor’s Office.

He said, “There’s a tendency in educational institutions to copy other people. It’s easy to look to other institutions and copy what worked for them without considering if it would work for you.”

However, Carver found the idea of focusing on innovation at CCC “problematic.”

Like Marquez, Carver said he thinks there are a number of issues that need to be addressed at CCC before the college should look toward innovating the field of education.

“I think the college needs to look at who our students are and what their actual goals are,” Carver said. “Do students want to transfer? Or are they looking for meaningful employment? Even if it just means talking to them about their goals, professors and the college need to work to make those connections with students.”

Carver said he often hears students tell him that they were not aware of what jobs they could get with a certain degree, or that after being on campus for years, they were not aware of resources available to them.

“Being on campus for years and not knowing what help is available isn’t the students’ fault, it’s a failing of the institution,” Carver said.

Carver said the college needs to create an environment that clearly prioritizes helping students as the main goal. He said he currently does not get that impression from the college.

“I think there are definitely pockets of professors who really care and will take their time to help students,” Carver said. “But I don’t think we do that collectively as a whole.”

Carver’s opinion seems to be shared by a number of faculty. In CCC’s five-year strategic plan, titled “Vision 2020: Equity and Access, Engagement and Achievement, Excellence and Accountability,” it states that, “Employees at CCC had concerns about considering the needs of students when decisions are made to add or delete programs or courses and whether there are sufficient knowledgeable staff to provide effective student services.”

Though whether the issue of sufficient knowledgeable staff will be addressed is debatable.

Governing Board President John Nejedly said, “We have a very ambitious chancellor.

“I don’t know if CCC should grow,” Nejedly said. “Honestly, CCC probably needs to be downsized.”

Dr. Benjamin did not necessarily agree with that sentiment, but said, “I don’t know if downsize is the right word. I think it might need to be right-sized, but that has been happening already as programs and staff come and go.”

Another obstacle to the “Next Level” is the goal of “energizing” the faculty at all three colleges. In the most recent faculty morale survey done by the United Faculty union, roughly 15 percent of the faculty in the district identified themselves as “energized.” The four predominant terms the faculty used to describe themselves were exhausted, frustrated, overworked and undervalued.

English professor Jeffrey Michels said, “Teaching is a profession largely dependent upon morale. What students get out of a class is largely dependent on the level of investment the professor showcases.”

Dr. Michels explained that though the faculty had such a poor outlook of the college when the survey was taken last year, he was hopeful for the future.

Speech department Chairperson Sherry Diestler said, “A lot of the issues the faculty have are that with recent paperwork demands from the state, we’re beginning to feel more like bureaucrats and less like professors.”

Diestler said faculty who get more involved in the process of running departments and the college are often forced to prioritize meeting deadlines for paperwork over helping students.

“It makes one feel like they’re just doing busy work no one will ever read,” she said. “We have to design student learning outcomes, but often don’t have the time to discuss their implications as a department. It can make some feel like they have to choose between filling out reports or answering student emails.”

Michels said if he could eliminate any of the non-teaching paperwork faculty do, it would be student learning outcomes.

“SLOs are the most redundant thing we do,” Michels said. “We have to define what students are going to learn in explicit terms and how we will assess their learning. At any point in time a professor can tell you what his students should be learning. And how do we assess that? We used to call them grades.”

District Diversity, Inclusion and Innovation Officer Tammeil Gilkerson said, “A focus on student equity is happening aggressively at all three colleges right now.”

Gilkerson said innovative programs are being adopted at every level across the district.

“One big example of innovation taking place right now is at LMC,” she said. “They’re currently constructing a small farm to attach to the early childhood education program as an open classroom. It not only will enrich the learning experience for the students, but also for the children in the program.”

“I think it’s important that we have the will to push through,” Gilkerson said. “We need to work and continue to work to infuse a culture of excellence and inclusion into all of our policies and procedures.”