Shutting the Door on City College’s Neediest

Shutting the Door on City College’s Neediest

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Above: Supporters of City College rallied at in front of City Hall on Friday, Jan. 16. (Photo credit: Diane Wallis)

SAN FRANCISCO – On the first day of the spring semester at City College of San Francisco, the nation’s largest community college, some of the school’s neediest students were told they don’t count.

On January 12, teachers gathered at the Civic Center campus, which sits in the shadow of City Hall. But rather than teaching classes in English as a Second Language, literacy and GED as planned, they came to let students know that the campus was temporarily closed and classes would be shifted to a much smaller basement site in two weeks.

The announcement was hard for anyone to take in since it was so unexpected, but in addition many of the students at the campus are beginning English speakers from all over the world, and many of them had no idea what was going on. Some were in tears. Some went directly over to the new site at 33 Gough Street, not understanding that the classes there were scheduled to begin in February.

Teachers had found out about the move just three days earlier – at a meeting when Chancellor Arthur Tyler told them the campus would be shut down temporarily for seismic repairs. Diane Wallis, a teacher at the campus, says she and her colleagues felt blindsided and betrayed – especially since an architectural firm had given the administration its report back in August. Tyler and CCSF spokesman Jeff Hamilton say they didn’t want to make an announcement until they had a location to move to.

I teach at City College in the Transitional Studies Department for students getting a high school diploma, a GED or working on their math, reading and writing. In 2012, the regional accreditation commission put the school on the harshest sanction and in 2013, revoked its accreditation. (A court decision last week found the commission in violation of state law, giving the school the chance to challenge the initial decision to revoke its accreditation).

Working at a school under this sort of threat is maybe even more demoralizing than you’d think – the constant explaining that we ARE open and that the accreditors found nothing wrong academically; losing thousands of students meaning the loss of more funds; always feeling under attack; the elected Board of Trustees replaced with a “special” trustee, and the frustration that the accreditation commission members seem to be making up things as they go along, accountable to no one.

So maybe the disruptive closure of the Civic Center campus – and how the administration didn’t negotiate with the union as required, and treated the faculty as an obstacle rather than a partner in the whole process ¬– shouldn’t be surprising. But it is. It’s appalling. If the building is that unsafe, and they knew in August, why have classes been held there the whole fall semester? Why the move RIGHT NOW?

Then there is the way the students at this campus, many of them poor and on the margins, are being treated. The site they are being moved to has inadequate space and there are (unconfirmed) accounts of mold. Their teachers have been telling them, “You’re important, you matter, education is the way out and up.” This unexpected move gives the opposite message – it shoves them into a basement.

And it doesn’t feel so great for the teachers either. Tim Killikenny, president of the faculty union, AFT 2121, thinks this sort of non-transparent administrative decision, with a lack of respect for faculty, staff and students, would not be happening if the Board of Trustees was still in power and the administration was accountable to someone. AFT 2121 held a rally Friday at the Civic Center campus and City Hall, where they held ESL lessons on democracy, with a visit from Supervisor David Campos.

Democracy should be a key part of what we do at City College.

Responding to actor Tom Hanks’ recent op-ed in The New York Times where he wrote about getting his start at Hayward’s Chabot College, and offered support for Obama’s proposal to expand free community college, the president of Chabot called two-year schools “democracy’s colleges” that offer opportunity for everyone.

So let’s see some democracy and opportunity for all at CCSF. In his morning address at an all-school meeting, the day he told those at the Civic Center campus he was closing it down, Tyler said Dr. Martin Luther King inspired him. That’s the Martin Luther King who talked about poverty being one of our most urgent issues, and how we “must go all out to bridge the social and economic gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have not’s’ of the world.”

Closing, even temporarily, a campus that serves mostly poor students and limits their access to education is really, really far from going all out to bridge the economic gulf. If we genuinely believe in the transformative power of education, let’s show that by making education as accessible and welcoming as possible, not by ignoring those whose lives stand to be most impacted by these decisions.