Beginning a semester again at City College of San Francisco is like falling into a time warp: the eternal semester that is, has been, and always will be. Somewhere in the middle of the first week’s new faces, excitement, hope, chaos and stress, I asked myself if it was the first, second or third week. Am I just coping with the intolerable by living an illusion?
Because nothing is as it was, and my community college reverie kept being punched through by odd events: eclipses of the school’s web site and e-mail system, the disappearance of a car-sized photo-copy machine to ration faculty printing, the absence of the English department’s chair while multiple class cancellations are pending, and rumored firing of several deans.
The gradual descent of City College of San Francisco into the current accreditation crisis has really been a crisis of acrimony, doubt, political double-cross, and anonymous irresponsibility. A long-rumored financial crisis exploded into the open about a year ago when classes were cut, and the Vice-Chancellor of Finances issued a YouTube video stating that cupboard was bare.
This would seem like enough to focus on during the spring of 2012, but the English Department needed more immediate drama: a long-criticized placement test (key to putting students in the right level composition class in a school where about 75% of new students test into levels below 1A– first year comp, university transferable credit) was attacked by a well-funded student reform group, some multicultural education advocates on staff (that I was once friends with), and the outgoing Chancellor. He had been long frustrated by the placement tests and long course sequences of English and Math Departments, and before retiring to get a brain tumor operation, he resolved to do away with them.
As a teacher who understands little about placement tests, but works with many students that are ill-prepared for college writing, I found the critics to be obsessed with mere acceleration of students through basic skills classes. Most of these students have been certified by high schools as being ready for college, yet the majority of them are reading and writing at 7th to 9th grade levels. Urban schools’ apparent social promotion practices have resulted in the massive graduation of students who may desire to attend college but whose reading and writing have been stalled for many years. Faculty learning processes are also strained: in the past ten years at CCSF, English course reform efforts have not yielded any clear-cut advances in student pass rates, graduation rates, transfer rates or persistence. To me, the sound and fury around the “racist,” “demoralizing” placement test was strangely irrelevant to the issues real basic skills teachers have been dealing with.
I cannot begin to explain the cursing, moaning, sub-plotting, and hair-pulling that ensued when the College’s Board of Trustees held public hearings.
English teachers came out of the affair feeling abused. I attended one of the hearings and my reward was to have a large photograph printed of myself in the student newspaper next to the department chair, under a red-ink headline that said “INJUSTICE!!” The article about the dispute was actually fair-minded, but my transformation into an image of mean-spirited intransigence was creepy, but I have not suffered the worst of it. The College has a tenuous new placement system for math and English, and we will live with the results of this latest reform imposed by the Board of Trustees, elected officials who understand little about teaching or learning.
This was all promptly forgotten in a few weeks when City College received the worst possible rating short of school closure (“Show Cause”) from the accreditation committee. Odd—the college is not really faulted for the education it provides (its graduation and pass rates are somewhere in the community college norm), but is condemned as an institution for its overall administration, governance and finances. While some say the faculty and its union have too much power, pay, and job security, the accreditation committee clearly focused its criticism on the leadership of the college. Now some of my multicultural education advocates are busy declaring their allegiance to the power-holders in state education. They seem to be believe that equity can be attained through policies of austerity.
Are the district leaders as incompetent as they pretend to be? You can now find a quotation in cyberspace from one the politicians on the Board of Trustees (fresh from a few years of verbally abusing math and English departments about how they don’t promote student success) admitting they were “clueless” about how to manage the funding and guide administration of the college.
But now, we have to rush to reform the college to the accreditation committee’s liking. We are working harder, in a more stressful environment for much less pay (8.8% less by my recollection). As we have our pay cut, our classes canceled and our colleagues laid off, I hope that CCSF staff does not involve itself in recriminations.
The trauma of fast-tracking multiple reforms, discouraging students with all the bad news, and then begging them to come back with teacher-led public outreach, is worthy of the novel I might write, if I weren’t living through it.