Bakersfield Symposium Highlights Concerns – and Solutions – Related to College Access and Equity

04 Dec 2019

More than 300 practitioners from community colleges across California gathered in Bakersfield on Nov. 15 to learn about and explore intentional, supported pathways as a strategy for equity.

The intensive, daylong Bakersfield Intersegmental Pathways Symposium began with remarks from Kern Community College District chancellor Thomas J. Burke and Bakersfield College president Sonya Christian. Christian said California’s continued economic growth depends on increasing the number of state residents with bachelor’s degrees by a million-plus students over the coming decade.

“We are looking at innovation and scalability,” she said. “We’re not just looking at our existing systems, but at what we can do to disrupt our existing systems, because scaling what we are doing isn’t going to produce 1.1 million additional baccalaureates.”

Graduating more baccalaureates will require colleges to take steps first outlined by the Public Policy Institute of California, Christian said. Colleges must increase access; clarify the pathways through college to attainment of students’ goals in order to shorten the time it takes to graduate; increase the number of transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions; and provide more and smarter financial aid. At the day’s end, a panel of state education leaders zeroed in on those measures as key to improving student success and equity.

The first panel, on transitions to college, was moderated by CLP executive director Linda Collins and included numerous presentations from colleges and universities about their most promising work aligning pathways across educational systems. The day concluded with a keynote conversation among state leaders, who fielded questions from attendees about how to meet the pressing need to address race and income gaps in student success and achievement.

Linda noted that California ranks among the bottom 30 percent of states in college attendance, which is an especially serious concern in Kern County, where baccalaureate attainment is far below the state average. College and personal narratives — from Christian Chavez, a student at Porterville College; Kristin Clark, president of West Hills College Lemoore; Lori Bennett, president of Clovis College; and Kevin Tallon, principal of Wasco High School in rural Kern County — pointed to important work already under way.

West Hills is seeing promising results for students from intensively using and sharing student data across the college campus, overriding any fear of violating related federal law (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA). “What FERPA says is, if you have an educational need to know about a student, you may have access to their data,” said Clark. “Who on my campus does not have an educational need to know what is happening with our students?”

Many speakers, starting with student Christian Chavez, who told the story of her own transition from low-paying work to college, highlighted the need to change the narratives that students tell about themselves. Lori Bennett at Clovis put it most succinctly: “A lot of our students don’t believe that they belong in college.”

Bennett also described her campus’s push to align its English curriculum with curricula at area high schools and how that has dramatically increased completion rates in transfer-level English. She said Clovis is now replicating the approach in math — starting with high schools where students have the greatest need — by adding a summer jumpstart, a one-unit dual enrollment course between junior and senior years of high school, and other supports for students transitioning to college.

Kevin Tallon of Wasco High talked about how his rural school has been implementing dual enrollment for students starting in ninth grade to increase access to college and transform its community: Wasco adopted a block schedule, arranges support for students in college courses, and coordinates closely with Bakersfield College and the Wonderful Co.

A second panel — moderated by Steven Holmes, a member of the political science faculty and president of the Academic Senate at Bakersfield College — took on pathways from community college to university. Joe Wyse, president of Shasta College, talked about efforts there to help more students who have completed significant numbers of credits to apply for associate degrees and continue their progress toward career advancement. Jackie Cruz, vice president of advancement and development at Hartnell College, revealed the dramatic success rates for women and students of color who have participated in “CS in 3,” a collaboration with CSU Monterey Bay that offers a bachelor’s degree in computer science in three years. And Noemi Donoso, senior vice president of Wonderful Co., discussed the promising results of the Wonderful College Prep Academy, where more than 200 students have finished associate degrees at the same time as they’ve received their high school diplomas.

In the third panel, on intersegmental data sharing, principal Justin Derrick of McFarland High School, another rural Kern County campus with high rates of dual enrollment, said his district now asks students to start exploring their career interests in sixth grade. “The old way of looking at things — ‘I want to do this, but I want to go to this school, and then decide my major’ — is totally backward,” Derrick said. Instead, educators should help students to determine where their skills lie and then support them in pursuing related coursework and careers so that college costs them less time and money and they have a greater chance of meeting their goals.

Joanna Schilling, president of Cypress college, talked about her campus’s new completion dashboard, the Pathway Program Mapper, co-developed by Bakersfield College, which aims for similar improvements. Kris Grappendorf, a professor of kinesiology at CSU Bakersfield, outlined how her campus reaches out to high school students. And moderator Craig Hayward noted the bottomline importance of communicating effectively with students and giving them access to more information. “Research shows that when students are able to visualize themselves in a career, see the wages that they’ll make, they’re much more likely to complete.”

The fourth panel, on effective partnerships, highlighted the synergies that arise for students from Bakersfield College collaborating with CSU Bakersfield to build a new satellite campus that both will use; from public-private partnerships in Kern County created with support from College Futures Foundation; and from the University of California system opening its newest campus in Merced, where the need was greatest.

The day concluded with a lively conversation among statewide leaders moderated by California state Assemblymember Rudy Salas Jr., whose district includes Kings County and much of Kern County. The key challenge, he said, is to find ways to “come together as collective individuals to help people in California have better lives.”

California Community Colleges chancellor Eloy Oakley said the future of California lies in the people and institutions of the Central Valley. “The community colleges play the greatest role among higher education institutions in serving areas like the Central Valley, California’s far north, and the Inland Empire. Governor Newsom is clear about the equity mission for the community colleges. Our vision for success is clear, and the roadmap is clear.”

Lande Ajose, Newsom’s top higher education adviser, said the state must address three massive challenges head on in order to continue growing: the equity crisis; cost of attending college; and the need for effective education reform. And Lupita Alcala, chief deputy to the state superintendent of education, Tony Thurmond, said California has “been wasting our most important capital,” its students.

All three agreed that education reform must be broad, and financial support for students can no longer be limited to tuition and fees because the cost of living in California is overwhelming.

“There’s no way to think about degree attainment goals for the state and have an equity agenda if we’re not thinking about racial and ethnic gaps,” Ajose said. “We have been in bunker mode — we don’t want to talk about this stuff — and that affects what we can do. We have got to look at our admissions practices. We’ve got to look at how we diversify our faculty and how we keep them. And we have to look at how we get people to and through college and into high-wage industries.”

Change, the group agreed, begins with everyone who attended the symposium. It requires honesty and clarity and a focus on data, student success, and the pursuit of equity.