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Rural community colleges face distinct challenges

Mendocino College student Melanie Douglas drives 75 minutes each way with her 3-year-old son, Noah, to take classes. The child care center is facing possible reductions.
(Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times)

UKIAH, Calif. — On a recent evening at the Mendocino College Center for the Visual & Performing Arts, a cast of 35 belted out boisterous voice exercises before running through a dress rehearsal of “Inherit the Wind.”

About half are community members taking the production course for personal enrichment — not pursuing degrees or planning to transfer to four-year theater programs. Some are veteran actors, who elevate the learning environment.

Met with a rave review in Ukiah’s daily newspaper, the production speaks volumes about how central this school is to the region’s cultural life and community spirit.

FULL COVERAGE: California Community Colleges

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Yet changes to the core mission of California’s community colleges threaten that role. State efforts to ease overcrowding and help colleges adapt to budget cuts are backfiring in rural districts already burdened by vast territories, withered economies, high poverty rates and dwindling populations.

Rather than serving “lifelong learners,” the state’s 112 colleges have been directed to focus on students seeking to acquire such basic skills as English, transfer to four-year schools or earn associate degrees or certificates.

To that end, upcoming restrictions will limit the number of times students can repeat classes in such programs as arts and athletics. While theater arts professor and director Reid Edelman said he will allow maxed-out community members to audit, they will no longer count toward enrollment goals — or bring in state resources for the college — leaving the department’s future vulnerable.

“What the state wants is for students to come here for two years and then transfer,” Edelman said. “It’s just throwing away this whole gem. We don’t have enough students just among the transfer students to cast the plays.”

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In addition to depriving the broader community of activities that are rare or nonexistent beyond campus borders, the altered priorities threaten the economic health of rural colleges.

Urban schools can backfill eliminated courses in arts or athletics by adding sections in core subject areas such as history. But that’s not the case in rural areas with lighter demand, where colleges are struggling to meet enrollment goals on which the state bases its funding.

Decreased funding, in turn, is sure to prompt further cuts — potentially threatening the educational offerings the state is seeking to protect.

“Rural areas don’t have the population to dip into,” said Mendocino College interim President Roe Darnell, who warned that the pending rules limiting course repetition will deal a particularly sharp blow.

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“Our class sizes will plummet,” Darnell said. “That’s what all the small schools are trying to prepare for.”

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The Mendocino-Lake Community College District was formed in 1972 to serve most of Mendocino County and about half of Lake County. The college opened on the Ukiah fairgrounds, adding centers in Willits to the north and Lakeport to the east. A permanent campus followed on 127 acres of oak-dotted ranch land.

Today, about 5,000 students attend each year, many of them low-income. The district estimates that one-quarter of households with children under 18 within its boundaries are headed by single mothers, compared with one-fifth of such households statewide.

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Reductions in state funding have had an impact. The annual college budget is 9% smaller than it was five years ago, and positions of departed faculty, staff and administrators have been left unfilled, spurring the elimination of some classes.

Like other rural schools, Mendocino College is compelled to keep core courses with thin enrollment that students with nowhere else to go need in order to graduate or transfer, Darnell said.

Still, while many class sizes remain small — and less than cost-effective — the squeeze has affected students preparing to apply to the esteemed college nursing program. Melanie Douglas, a 21-year-old single mother from the Lake County town of Clearlake, had to wait three semesters to land a coveted anatomy class because of cuts in the number of classes offered.

Douglas rises before dawn and wakes 3-year-old Noah for the hour and 15-minute drive to the Ukiah campus — increasingly costly because of rising gas prices. Like nearly two-thirds of students here she is on financial aid, but if it weren’t for the free care Noah gets at the campus Child Development Center, she wouldn’t be here.

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And if it weren’t for the nursing program, she would have little hope of remaining in the region and earning enough to boost her household into the middle class.

Her lifeline is tenuous: The child care center, which doubles as a laboratory for students majoring in early childhood education, is facing possible service reductions. And Barbara French, the director of nursing education, said the region’s hospitals may pull their funding of a full-time instructor, leaving her program to admit students only every other year.

That would slow the flow of new graduates, 90% of whom are hired locally.

“It’s so hard to attract out-of-area people to work in the region,” French said.

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While students clamor to enter her program, elimination of more esoteric majors and offerings such as yoga and aerobics have triggered an enrollment drop, pushing the college below the target it must reach to maintain state funding levels.

If the goal is not met this year, the target will be lowered, meaning fewer resources — and fewer classes.

Complicating matters are the rules that take effect next fall requiring colleges to organize classes in programs such as arts, music and athletics into groups of four and allow students to take no more than one of each within a group before sitting out for three years.

Darnell said one approach would be to eliminate such programs altogether, “but that’s not the way this college works, because the community need is there.” Still, he conceded, something will have to give.

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The inevitable reductions could threaten historically strong community support. A $22.5-million library was recently built with proceeds from a voter-backed 2006 bond measure. With breathtaking views of buff-colored hillsides, it offers study rooms with new wall-mounted computer monitors and high-speed Internet — a lifeline to students who live in areas with no access.

The facility, administrators say, is the most significant construction project in the two-county region in recent memory. Well-attended sporting events and theater productions also speak to the institution’s outsize community role.

“This is all we have,” said Jenny Yang, 24, who first took classes here as a Chinese immigrant with limited English skills and now represents students statewide on the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.

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There are upsides to being small. For big institutions, crafting new programs to adapt to an evolving economy can take years. Mendocino College is nimble.

On a recent day, Fort Bragg chef Nicholas Petti — the Culinary Arts Management instructor since 2011 — helped students prepare a lunch with eggplant lasagna, hand-crafted sausage and freshly made mozzarella and tomato salad for potential donors on a college foundation tour.

The foodie culture of the coast is spreading inland, presenting a potential career choice for students who want to stay in the region. Ashley Boutiette, 26, of Willits is among them. She was accepted two years ago to a private culinary arts school in San Francisco but couldn’t afford to go.

“I want to open my own bakery,” said Boutiette, who saved for school by working multiple jobs for three years.

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Another recent addition offers certificates in sustainable technologies, capitalizing on the local thirst for green building and solar energy.

The programs are juggled with the needs of students like Kevin Leal who are aiming for four-year schools. The 19-year-old boards a 6:30 a.m. bus daily near his Lake County home in Hidden Valley Lake, transfers in Middletown to another bus that winds over Cobb Mountain, and then catches a third, which gets him to the Ukiah campus by 9 a.m. — just in time for chemistry or pre-calculus.

Leal hopes to complete his studies in Oregon and return as a medical doctor “to be part of making this struggling community better.” He is here thanks to Pell grants, a Board of Governors tuition waiver — which could soon become harder to obtain — and a $1,000 college foundation scholarship.

Such scholarships are the foundation’s bread and butter, but it has also turned of late to smaller, very specific solicitations. A recent campaign asked donors to fund shoes for nursing students — one $120 pair at a time — while another secured place settings for Petti’s cooking program.

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But with future cuts a near certainty, there is plenty of worry.

At the campus child center, a round observation room allows easy access for student teachers, while playgrounds and a lush garden amuse the charges. Parents like Douglas volunteer weekly to learn educational and discipline techniques.

Cuts have already forced the center to reduce enrollment by a dozen — a blow to student parents, more than half of whom recently reported their family incomes at $23,388 a year or lower.

Douglas said Clearlake offers no comparable options. With just two requirements — microbiology and physiology — left before she can apply to the nursing program, she said, new reductions would derail her.

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“I don’t think going to school would be an option for me,” she said.

lee.romney@latimes.com


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