Adapting to shifting student and community needs

DeRionne Pollard, president of Montgomery College, outlines her college's efforts to help students during Covid. She was among the featured speakers at AACC's Workforce Development Institute. (Image: Screenshot of streamed event)

The pandemic, economic collapse, civil unrest, social injustice and growing incidents of police brutality are particularly personal for community colleges and their leaders. They see the effects of each one of those crises on their students, faculty, staff and communities.

Bryan Albrecht, president of Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin, drives each day through the burned and boarded downtown of Kenosha on his way to work. Alex Johnson, who leads Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, has to address a sometimes skeptical community about police training. In the suburbs of Washington, D.C., DeRionne Pollard mulls how to help her Montgomery College students get laptops and Internet access to help them stay enrolled and complete their courses — all while many of them balance work and family obligations. In Las Vegas, Federico Zaragoza is guiding the College of Southern Nevada to help unemployed workers quickly train for jobs in emerging and growing fields, following the toppling of the city’s hospitality and tourism sectors.

Each of these college presidents on Wednesday outlined how their institutions are helping to address some of the effects of the crises during the opening plenary of the American Association of Community Colleges’ annual Workforce Development Institute (WDI), which this year was held virtually because of Covid.

August 23, 2020

Like all community colleges in the country, Gateway Tech last year was grappling with the effects of the pandemic. The college focused on safety protocols for its campus and on efforts to serve the community, such as donating and even producing more than 15,000 personal protection equipment (PPE) items. And it had to develop and implement plans to provide laptops and wi-fi access to students who didn’t have them as the college shifted to a mostly virtual learning environment.

Then, August 23 happened. That is when Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot by a White police officer three blocks from Gateway Tech’s Kenosha campus. Communities across the country were already on edge after police killed George Floyd on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The shooting in Kenosha sparked local rioting and brought national media and political attention.

Albrecht noted he would pass through the devastated area on this way to work each day. He was well aware that the neighborhoods most affected were those where Gateway Tech’s students and faculty lived.

“It’s humbling to experience something like that because you know you’re expected to be a leader and respond in a positive way to help people have hope,” Albrecht said.

Opportunities for discussions

Gateway Tech got to work on myriad fronts. It developed plans to allow students, faculty and community members to express their feelings. The college helped during local protests and marches by providing water, food and cleanup while supporting both the protesters and police officers.

While no specific plan could address all of these crises at once, Albrecht noted he learned several lessons over the past ten months. The first is not to underestimate the emotional strength of a crisis.

“That will trump anything you do as far as putting a contingency plan or safety measures or securities,” he said. “People react to emotions, and emotions were running high from the health pandemic and escalated as a result of civil unrest.”

Gateway Tech addressed it by immediately holding conversations with staff to let people express their feelings and share ideas on improving the community. The college also created a vice president position to oversee diversity, equity and inclusion and to lead those campus and community discussions. It also opened dialogues with community leaders to learn about other affected areas in the community, including workforce development.

Albrecht stressed that “communication is your best offense.”

“In many situations like this, communication becomes a defense: how do we explain what actions we took. We wanted to be more proactive in our communications,” he said.

That strategy included the college creating a preparedness and stabilization committee to gather input from its campuses and to learn what information its students and stakeholders needed. Albrecht also expanded his regular weekly messages to the college staff, students, local elected officials and others to twice a week via video to keep them informed.

Leverage what you have

Another takeaway from the crises for Albrecht: inventory your assets.

“That’s easy when you think about the equipment needs you may have or the deployment of special services,” he said. “But the real assets you have are the people and the networks you have established,” including local government and health officials, he said.

The college also tapped the expertise of first responders, including those who worked at its campuses and taught at the college.

“Our college is healing, but it’s going to take time. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Albrecht said. “But what gives me hope is that the people who will rebuild, reinvent and renew our community are the very students we serve every day.”

Better police officers

Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in Ohio also faced challenges as a result of the pandemic and social unrest, but it was the college’s police training program that President Alex Johnson outlined during the WDI session on Wednesday. In fact, after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers in Minnesota, some Tri-C students and community members questioned why community colleges even train police.

Johnson addressed those questions by noting that Tri-C has trained police for about 50 years, and that it could be a vehicle to help train current and future police to do their jobs better. The county heard his message and awarded the college $250,000 to train about 2,500 police officers in the county. Tri-C is currently providing that training, which includes the following components:

  • De-escalation techniques to use when police interact with individuals in a crisis, including emotional duress.
  • Increasing awareness of how race and trauma can affect police interactions with those individuals.
  • Police and law enforcement’s role in mass gatherings, protests and riots, with consideration toward First Amendment rights and a safe environment.
  • Identifying the long-term effects of “hypervigilance” and the role it plays in officers’ conduct.
  • Defining biased policing and understanding the concepts of implicit and explicit bias, including systemic racial bias and discrimination, and its effect on police officers and the communities they serve.
  • Community-oriented policing with an emphasis on strong customer services and understanding the relevance of building and maintaining relationships between police and community members.

Tri-C also will incorporate those aspects into the curriculum of its own police training programs, Johnson said.

A solution for the technology issue

Like most community colleges, Montgomery College (MC) in Maryland had many students who didn’t have computers or Internet access to do their school work when the college transitioned to mostly virtual learning due to the pandemic. Even before Covid, the college kept its computer labs open, including on weekends, because many students didn’t have adequate technology at home. During the pandemic, many students have used their mobile phones to do their coursework or parked at the college’s garages and parking lots to access wi-fi — something many other community colleges across the country also experienced.

President DeRionne Pollard had to look at the college’s budget differently to address those and other concerns. MC expected federal CARES Act funding to help their students, but it wasn’t certain when the money would arrive. So Pollard did something bold: She canceled the spring term’s in-person commencement, which helped the college save $400,000 that it instead used for emergency student aid. MC also repurposed other items in its budget that increased the pot to $650,000. Students were able to use the emergency grants to buy laptops and Internet access.

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Pollard noted that more than 40% of MC’s working students lost their jobs due to the pandemic — many are in low-wage jobs in retail and services — and another one-third said their work hours were cut.

“None of them could have afforded a $500 laptop,” she said.

Not only did the technology help many students stay enrolled and able to do their classwork, but it also helped students to connect to public resources, such as food distribution sites, Covid testing areas and more.

Helping hands

Others in the community also chipped in to help with technology. Local businesses and organizations contributed money as well as new and refurbished laptops for students. Private donors helped through food packages and cash. At MC, two employee unions repurposed their professional development funds to help students.

A key lesson the college has learned from the crisis is to develop long-term planning for technology access, Pollard said. MC’s deep relationships in the community allowed college officials to figure out how to make it work in the short term.

“We prioritized students’ most critical learning needs, and we learned a lot about the student experience. We are better prepared for the next crisis, and, dare I say, we are contributing to a different national narrative about who our students are,” Pollard said.

A sudden stop

Last year at this time, Las Vegas was a hot economic area, one of the top-five job generators and the fastest-growing metro area in the country, according to College of Southern Nevada (CSN) President Federico Zaragoza. Construction, tourism and real estate were booming. There were also expectations of attracting a record number of businesses to the area, including Microsoft and Amazon.

That all changed with Covid.

“Today, the Las Vegas region is the epicenter for unemployment and displacement in the country,” Zaragoza said.

Tourism and hospitality — which account for one-third of all jobs in the community — were hit especially hard. Some 250,000 jobs were lost, with a 33.5% unemployment rate in June 2020.

Today, CSN is working to get the economy and workforce back on track. The state’s economic recovery strategy relies heavily on community colleges, which are serving as economic first-responders by helping displaced and unemployed workers gain the skills for jobs in growing industries.

An important first step for CSN was to reaffirm its relationships with businesses, labor and workforce organizations, and to codify its role as a workforce and economic development partner in the region.

“The focus is communicate, communicate, communicate,” Zaragoza said.

With its partners, the college has focused on emerging and growing job sectors today and prior to Covid. CSN is launching 30 accelerated, short-term programs in areas such as healthcare, IT, manufacturing, logistics and the skilled trades. It also has hired eight new health and science instructors to prepare for an additional 200 new nursing seats, with a waiting list of 500 students.

The college is also working with the local workforce development board to ease displaced workers back into education by guiding them through the enrollment process, Zaragoza said.

“Community colleges were created for times like these, and we do it better than anyone else in the world,” he said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.