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EDITORIAL: Push forward with creative reinvention at City Colleges

Harry S Truman College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago in Uptown. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Years ago, the idea that the City Colleges of Chicago could be a success story seemed absurd.

The seven community colleges were considered schools of last resort. If you did enroll, and were among the small percentage of students who earned a degree, it wasn’t likely to lead to a decent-paying job or help you transfer to a four-year college. The schools were failing miserably at giving lower-income students a decent chance to climb the economic ladder.

Not anymore. City Colleges is doing a lot of things right these days, though there’s still much work left to do. That work should continue, aggressively, when Lori Lightfoot becomes mayor next month.

And as an education and workforce development expert has pointed out, there’s room for our city to reap the benefits.

“City Colleges of Chicago has the potential to function both as an engine of economic growth for its city and as a gateway to opportunity for the city’s low-income residents,” Richard Kazis wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2016.

Critics including the Cook County Teachers Union want to scrap much of “Reinvention,” the initiative launched by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former Chancellor Cheryl Hyman, and continued under current Chancellor Juan Salgado.

But going back to the past is ill-advised, given the progress that’s been made.

Take the Apprenticeship 2020 program, which provides students with valuable work experience at major Chicago companies while they earn degrees or certificates in their career fields. It’s grown from a partnership with one company offering apprentice jobs to 25 business students a few years back, to a network of some 20 corporations offering apprentice jobs to hundreds of students in different career areas.

More City Colleges students are now transferring to four-year colleges, too. Two dozen four-year institutions have streamlined the transfer process for graduates. Some are offering scholarships to boot, through an expansion of the Star Scholarship program that provides free City Colleges tuition to Chicago Public Schools graduates with at least a ‘B’ average.

In other words, good students have a viable shot at a bachelor’s degree — without the burden of overwhelming student loans.

Critics make valid points about the hurdles that remain.

Enrollment has fallen by a troubling 25 percent in recent years, though community colleges across Illinois are losing students too. City Colleges officials point out that reversing the decline is one of their goals.

They also must restore the public’s trust, after a much-touted uptick in graduation rates turned out to be smoke-and-mirrors. The civic watchdog Better Government Association found officials had tinkered with the numbers, including by granting degrees to dead people.

The critics also are understandably concerned about the impact of consolidating career-related courses onto specific campuses, saying it hurts access for some students. Someone from Roseland aiming for a career in health care, for instance, has to travel across town to the Malcolm X campus on the West Side for classes in their major.

Reversing the consolidations would “open up opportunities for students to be able to take courses and complete degrees at their local campuses,” Randy Miller, president of the City Colleges Contingent Labor Organizing Committee, which represents adjunct faculty, told WBEZ recently.

But it’s hardly feasible, in our view, to return to a system in which every campus tries to be everything to every student.

Consolidating related classes onto a single campus makes a lot of sense. Students network with others on the same career path. They also get the benefit, in some cases, of learning in a state-of-the-art facility: a “virtual hospital,” as at Malcolm X, or up-to-date engine repair labs and simulated driving facilities, as at Olive-Harvey.

Why not explore other solutions, like class scheduling changes or financial help with transportation, to make any long commutes more manageable?

One last point: There’s a role for CPS in this, too. Most City Colleges students are CPS graduates, and, as freshmen, a lot of them need remedial work. City Colleges shouldn’t be forced to water down their curriculum — and slow down other students, who are ready for college work — in the process.

CPS needs to address this problem, yet another item on Lightfoot’s list.

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