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These colleges deserve respect

Public education in Florida at all levels is taking a beating under our myopic and mean-spirited Republican leadership. It was not enough for lawmakers to slash school budgets. They have gone out of their way to scapegoat and demoralize our public classroom teachers and college and university professors.

As it always has been, community colleges — renamed in many regions as state colleges, now offering the bachelor's degree along with the traditional associate degree, certificate and license — are being treated like the stepchild of Florida education.

Having taught English and journalism in community colleges in Illinois and Florida for 21 years and having written about them for major newspapers, I know that these institutions are essential to the well-being of their communities.

They deserve more respect, particularly when we measure how well they carry out their missions. In Florida, like in the rest of the nation, more students are enrolled in community colleges than in our universities because, besides being less expensive, they are utilitarian institutions dedicated to serving their local communities. Most are on or near major thoroughfares where public transportation is available. To accommodate a diverse student population, classes start early in the morning and end late at night, and many classes are taught on weekends. Because they are public institutions, they have an open-door admissions policy.

Currently, I am an adjunct English professor at St. Petersburg College. A few of my experiences with students during the just-ended spring semester are worth sharing because they exemplify SPC's raison d'etre.

The course was freshman composition. I started with 27 students, and we met Monday nights from 7 to 9:45. Only one student was a recent high school graduate. The rest were adult learners holding full-time jobs, rearing families and juggling whatever else adults juggle in their lives. Most drove directly from work to class. Two were grandparents who worked full time. They fretted over their grades.

My students were there for all the reasons most adult learners attend community colleges. Among them: advancing in a current profession; obtaining skills for a new career; fulfilling a dream of getting a college degree now that the nest is empty; getting a better job to help pay for a child's college tuition; continuing to learn about new things; and meeting people with similar goals and interests.

Each time I came to class, I knew I was doing something special for these students, and I had to adjust a few requirements in the syllabus. For example, I have a strict rule about tardiness: Do not come to class late. Well, two students often came a few minutes late. One, sometimes wearing hospital garb, would slink in, unable to look at me until her embarrassment wore off. I spoke with her and learned that she got off work at 6 and had to fight rush hour traffic to get to class on time. Mine was the only section that fit her schedule. She earned the grade of B on the final.

I got a real picture of the students in their essays. One was a discharged U.S. Marine who planned to become a psychologist. Another was a young woman who wants to join the U.S. State Department's diplomatic corps. A young man is entering the police academy this fall. One woman, who cried after getting a C on an essay, had been admitted to the nursing program.

I was pleased, and surprised, that all but two completed all of the assignments on time. Class participation affected their grades, and most eagerly read their work aloud and accepted tough criticism. In the end, only five withdrew from the course.

I see my students as assets to society, hard-working taxpayers using the tangible and intangible benefits of SPC. Most will use their experiences, degrees, certificates and licenses to better themselves and their communities.

Without apology, I see myself, an adjunct professor, as an important player in this equation. My efforts and those of my colleagues should not be discounted.

SPC reports that this summer's enrollment is up 5.8 percent over last summer, 18,923 compared to 17,878. Bachelor's degree enrollment rose 11.8 percent over last summer. These increases testify to the enduring value of the college.

"The academic and instructional excellence of the college remains a strong draw for those who seek postsecondary education," SPC president Bill Law said in the Blue & White, the college's online news publication. "In tough economic times like these, we're also the beacon for those who have lost their jobs and who feel the need to get additional education to face the challenges of the global economy."

These colleges deserve respect 05/21/11 [Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2011 7:20am]
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