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April 18, 2006 > Chabot College - Preparing students for success

Chabot College - Preparing students for success

Chabot College - Preparing students for success

TCV has conducted a series of interviews (beginning December 20, 2005) with superintendents of local school districts including the public school systems of Milpitas, Fremont, Newark, Union City and Hayward as well as the Diocese of Oakland. Interviews of local college and university presidents began with President/Superintendent Dr. Douglas Treadway of Ohlone College (Fremont) in our March 14, 2006 edition. This week, TCV interviews Dr. Robert Carlson, President Chabot College (Hayward). Our series will conclude next week when we publish an interview with Dr. Norma Rees, President California State University East Bay (Hayward).

TCV: Dr. Carlson, what is your background? Why are you at Chabot College?

Dr. Carlson: I was the Executive Director (President) of a community college in New Mexico. I had been doing that for seven years and an opportunity came up to come to California and the Bay Area which looked pretty attractive. This was also an opportunity to work in a different situation, so for personal growth, it was a good time to change. I had been in California for 13 years prior to New Mexico so I was familiar with system. I held three different positions with the San Diego school system before going to New Mexico.

TCV: Is there a big difference between school systems?

Dr. Carlson: There is a huge difference between large urban and small, rural institutions. Gallup, New Mexico is a community of 20,000 people that is completely isolated. It is two hours from other communities of any size. The whole state of New Mexico has a population of about 2 million residents; there are more residents than that in the East Bay.

The distance we covered was about the size of the state of Connecticut with centers scattered all over this area. Eighty percent of our students were Native American so the characteristics and statistics were different. There were similarities however. The school system needed facilities and to grow; it needed to rethink its organizational processing. I supervised my first bond issue and construction program with that college so when I came here I was familiar with that process.

TCV: Did you begin your career focused on education?

Dr. Carlson: It sort of happened through circumstance. I started off as an auto mechanic - I am a certified auto mechanic - who trained at a community college in the automotive program. I thought about teaching auto mechanics, so I went to school primarily to learn how to do that and became a Ford Foundation Fellow, invited to do a masters program at their expense. As I moved farther along in teaching, my inclination was toward administrative work. I taught for a while, finished a doctorate and have been an administrator since my mid-thirties.

TCV: How has the focus of community college changed? Has it changed at Chabot?

Dr. Carlson: Nationally, as well as here, it has been shifting for the past 10-15 years, particularly in the urban areas. Since I have been here the demographics have been pretty stable, but since the 1990s there has been a huge change. This college, when founded, was predominately White and the area was almost rural. In the 60s and 70s, it retained those characteristics but as the East Bay became more populated, the demographics changed dramatically. Now our student body has no ethnic majority and comes with a wide variety of educational preparation and economic backgrounds. There are about 40 languages spoken on our campus. That is pretty typical of urban community colleges nationally.

When I came to community college in the 60s, there were a lot of questions about what they were. Now they are a cornerstone of economic development; a cornerstone of first opportunity for students with a more clearly defined mission. They often vary and find their own niche in each community, but tend to share core values. Now community colleges are known as institutions of first choice for entry level college courses.

It is a huge advantage to attend community college. National data shows that students are better prepared at community college for a four year institution than those who begin at the four year institution. We are proud of that since we do not take an elite group of students. The Universities may take the top 25 or 50 percent of students while we take the top 100 percent. Everybody can come here. We still manage to transfer students who excel in the remaining years of college.

There are good reasons for this. We have master teachers rather than student assistants, smaller classes and personal contact between teachers and students even though we have 15,000 students. Those characteristics help students and create conditions for success in future years.

TCV: Is there much difference between the two campuses of the district - Chabot and Las Positas?

Dr. Carlson: We just did a study of this. Las Positas is still predominately white and located in a more affluent community. The demographics and students are a bit different, but our success rate is very similar. It makes you stop and wonder when you hear that student preparation and economics make a big difference. From the study, it appears that the student population at Chabot with mixed backgrounds and those at Las Positas with a more centric background achieve similarly. Students come to Chabot less prepared and it takes longer to achieve the results, but if they stick it out, they have just as much success. Although persistency is less at Chabot, my assumption is that Chabot students have a lot more going on in their lives such as work, family issues, etc.

TCV: Do students attend courses on both campuses?

Dr. Carlson: In many ways we operate as two parallel schools. Internally, we coordinate as one district. Many of our students shop classes between the schools as well as schools north and south and across the bay. We have quite a few students who move back and forth between our campuses.

TCV: Have you seen or do you expect an impact of the mandatory CAHSEE (California High School Exit Examination) exam at Chabot?

Dr. Carlson: The impact is a bit higher than we thought. We are hearing numbers of pass/fail rates and trying to assess the impact. If the state sticks to its guns, we will have high school students [failing the CAHSEE] without a degree that will be looking for certification and only have a couple of opportunities, community college being the major one. We are struggling with this. Our college is full; classes running at 95 to 100 percent occupancy. We have scheduled all the classes we can afford given our budget and if we suddenly have another 2,000 students show up on our doorstep asking for help with the basic skills to complete GED (General Education Development) certification or go on with their education, we would have a hard time with that. We need to think through our own organization to see how we can absorb the impact.

We are trying to get grants to help at the high schools with supplemental and tutorial programs. Students have multiple opportunities to take and pass the exam, so we can assist them early on. Our strategy is dual pronged: How do we help students in trouble and how do we help those who fail the exam? Another problem that has always been an issue is that between 9th and 12th grade, about 30-40 percent of the students drop out. They have been out there a long time and we start seeing them when they decide to pull their lives together.

Students coming out of high school unprepared will probably be about the same number. The change will be that they are labeled differently. In a sense, we are already dealing with that population. What we may see are students more focused since they did not get the diploma and are wondering how to close the loop. That is a new question.

TCV: How has Chabot dealt with recent changes in the economy and industry?

Dr. Carlson: The biggest problem we are dealing with is the collapse of the statewide economy. It gutted the community college system. Many students do not see this since they still show up for classes held on Monday morning. However, in terms of managing those classes, making them effective, being able to move an advanced curriculum and grow with the needs of the community, we have lost that. In the mid 80s, if you asked anyone in the country connected with community colleges about Chabot, it would have ranked in the top five. That has been gutted due to lack of funding. We are in the 48th ranked state of education funding! It is an invisible problem. If I send my kids off to school, something happens between then and 3 o'clock, but what?

In the last three years, Chabot had to cut over 200 sections out of our offerings. That alone dropped us by 1,000 students in enrollment. That is 1,000 people in our community that cannot advance on their job, find work or gain their first steps in education. This is a real loss to the community. Someone is carrying those people because we were not able to provide the education they wanted. It is hard for us to adapt right now with budget constraints and a high occupancy rate.

TCV: But you have to adapt to a changing environment.

Dr. Carlson: We are hiring back in some new growth areas such as basic skills of English and math; transfer curriculum of psychology, chemistry, etc. Wherever we are gaining strength and seeing traffic, we are responding. What is particularly difficult is in vocational training. For example, from discussions in the community, we know that auto body skills are in high demand. We know a program would be successful, but to open an auto body program, I need the same capital that an entrepreneur needs to open an auto body shop; equipment, space and trained people. They go to a bank and capitalize the need while I have no bank and no way to get it off the ground except with community support developed over time.

TCV: Does Chabot College draw from a large geographic area?

Dr. Carlson: Our students come everywhere but primarily Hayward. "Keystone" or specialty programs may draw from a much wider geographic area. In our case, we think one of our keystone programs is performing arts and athletics is another. These programs are known and draw from a wide area. Of course, certain courses - fundamental courses - need to be everywhere. Although community colleges are aware of each other and keystone programs, we don't have widespread conversations about this.

Chabot doesn't have many "weak sisters" programs. We have a vocational program that is missing from many other institutions and strong science and foreign language programs. Our reputation is solid and many faculty members are long term who have preserved our core values.

TCV: Where will Chabot grow in the next 5 years?

Dr. Carlson: Our growth will probably be fairly small. Right now we are at approximately 15,000 students. All the data we can gather at this time indicates about 18-19,000 students in 10 years. There will opportunities to try some new things and the demographic will change. You can't just bring out the same menu every year. A lot of funding is growth based so if you are not growing, it will be a struggle.

TCV: Will online classes become dominant?

Dr. Carlson: You are talking about access and style. Just as Chabot provides a menu of the type of curriculum available, we also need to address the different requirements of the community. The next thing is to offer different styles of access. We have a solid, but not large, distance learning program and it will grow.

Distance education has been a lively debate in educational systems for 20 or 30 years. Traditional faculty may question its quality and ask, How is it being offered and do you really get all the value of an education if doing everything online? Doing everything online in an institution like ours is probably not an option. Others that do this have a different culture. I think we will always be a mixed institution. We will do a lot of things electronically and use technical support for our existing courses. What it will do is give access to more people who cannot come to campus, cannot manage the timing of the class, transportation and other issues.

It is not less expensive to give online classes; it is actually much more labor intensive. Courses are taught in a different manner and there are usually more students involved with individual needs. The workload of the faculty increases. I am not comparing building classrooms to going online; Chabot has classrooms and going online is a capital increase. The real benefit is capturing more students.

We have a core of faculty that is very interested in this type of teaching and they are helping others to become interested. It is less of a conflict for most faculty members to use technology in support of face-to-face curriculum. There are many users of chat, on-line submission of work or posting of materials.

When I was in San Diego, part of what I was responsible for was staff development programs. We had a video conference in which AT&T and Coast Community College demonstrated two-way video instruction. Quite a few faculty members were present and listening to a presentation from another location. As the audience was chatting with each other during the presentation, one person in the audience commented that it was video communication was fine except you couldn't ask a question of the presenter. In response, the person at the remote location turned her head and queried, "What question do you want to ask?" The whole room became quiet. This was a one second life change for a lot of people.

TCV: We often hear of short student attention spans. Have teaching styles changed?

Dr. Carlson: A big question that has come out in The Chronicle of Higher Education [a weekly newspaper for the higher education community] is how to distinguish the boundaries of a teacher's responsibility to teach and the need to hold the attention of students. This often centers on student evaluations of faculty - do entertainers win because students enjoyed the class versus a scholar who may be a less exciting presenter, but gives more depth of information. We are struggling with this issue. Our teachers use a wide variety of methods - group discussion, lecture, role play, etc. - to help students absorb the information in depth. The way in which students learn can be much different for each individual.

I go to a lot of classes to observe and take classes too. I find that students are interested. An instructor has to possess a "spark" that shows that he or she is interested in the students - they will respond.

Our teachers are enthusiastic. Many forget that community college teachers are not necessarily trained in education. These are people who are trained in their disciplines and are learning how to teach to others. When I interview new teachers, I look on two fronts; they have to love their subject matter with a personality that will "hook" the class and have an interest in teaching what they know to others. There are a lot of people at Chabot with these qualities.

Community colleges and education are in so much financial trouble that this dominates conversations. What sometimes is forgotten is that we are good educational institutions. The community may start to question if this is still a good place to go or if we are viable. I want to say that Chabot and other colleges are still excellent places to learn. We may not have all the programs we want and may not be able to address every need in the community, but we have very good programs delivered by very good people. Overall, even though we are struggling and have our issues, our schools are still delivering quality education.

There are positive things. Our community was very kind to us when they passed a bond measure three years ago. This will rebuild much of our campus and provide new buildings for Chabot and Las Positas. The people coming to our community and kids growing up in our community will have an even better institution when this construction program is completed. Our campus will have a new sparkle to it. Community support is very strong and I want them to know that they have a first class educational institution. Chabot delivers a good program to its community on a daily basis.

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